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High Tech
Pigeons Prove Skilled at Detecting Cancer

Policymakers with an eye on reducing healthcare costs, take heed! Researchers at the University of Iowa may have uncovered a low-cost alternative to radiological oncologists. The Beeb reports:

Pigeons, with training, did just as well as humans in a study testing their ability to distinguish cancerous from healthy breast tissue samples.

The pigeons were able to generalise what they learned, correctly spotting tumours in unseen microscope images. […]

After two weeks of training, the pigeons reached a level of 85% accuracy. Because they successfully identified cancerous tissue from images they had not seen before, the researchers ruled out rote-learning of the images as an explanation.

“The birds were remarkably adept at discriminating between benign and malignant breast cancer slides,” said lead author Prof Richard Levenson, from the University of California, Davis.

The researchers used operant conditioning to teach the pigeons how to spot cancerous tissue, providing rewards for each correctly identified image. Both the experimental design and the choice to use pigeons harken back to the work of B.F. Skinner, who famously developed the method of positive and negative reinforcement in an attempt to show that human behavior is dictated by social conditioning rather than free will. Skinner also somewhat infamously tried to harness the ability that pigeons have for image recognition and sensory processing to help in the fight against Hitler. During the Second World War, he received $25,000 from the NRDC to study how successful pigeons may be as pilots for guided bombs. The plan was, alas, ultimately passed on in favor of newly developed electronic guidance systems.

Ultimately, the same logic holds here: if pigeons can do this, computers certainly can, too. We are not experts in the field, but it appears that machine learning techniques are making significant strides in this direction. We desperately need a way to cut health care costs, and an aggressive move to shift as much of the work as possible to smarter machines—or even pigeons who will probably work for chickenfeed—needs to be part of our national strategy.

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  • Fat_Man

    I don’t think BF Skinner invented animal training. He just gave it a pseudo scientific vocabulary.

  • Anthony

    Operant conditioning – behavior sensitive to or controlled by results of conditioning – has long been part of animal learning (strategy) for insight into improving/impacting human advance. If benefits come from pigeon detecting, we’re so much the better.

  • iconoclast

    The trend seems to be away from early detection of things like prostate and breast cancer. Odd that that trend is occurring at the same time as Obamacare is coming onboard.

  • ljgude

    I was growing up on a farm In New Hampshire when Skinner was down at Harvard claiming that you could condition cows to stay in a particular area with an electric fence and then take the fence away and they would continue to stay in the bounded area. That’s when I learned that the folks down at Harvard weren’t all they were cracked up to be. There is a training effect however. If you take an electric fence down cows will come up to where it was and hesitate. The more intelligent ones will pause and get right into munching on that greener grass that had formally been on the other side of the fence. The less intelligent ones will appear surprised or puzzled and take longer to work it out. Perhaps up to a minute. I don’t know anything about pigeons, but I do know something about the Medical Industrial Complex. I believe the most likely outcome is that they will figure out a way to charge more for the pigeon labor than they currently charge for the outsourced Asian labor they use now. For sure, they are not going to lower their prices except if forced to by competition or regulation of some combination of the two. Medicine has an effective monopoly and therefore they can charge as much as the traffic will bear. It follows as the night the day that any cost saving innovations will be applied to increasing profits, not lowering costs. Look up the word “Chargemaster” in Wikipedia , then read Steven Brill’s Time magazine piece Bitter Pill. The research medical tourism.

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