Mammogram Reader of the Future: Pigeons?

An animal behaviorist puts them to the test
By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 19, 2015 7:43 AM CST

(Newser) – Human radiologists, look out. Pigeons turn out to be expert mammogram readers after very little training, at least according to a study published this week in PLoS ONE. Using 16 pigeons in a chamber with a touchscreen, scientists trained them to peck at one of two colored buttons to correspond with the type of image they were being shown; if they got it right, they got food. It turns out that those beady little eyes picked up patterns showing malignant versus benign breast tissue very well and very fast. At first, as they were trained for what to spot, they were right 50% of the time. "In some sense, the pigeon and the person are starting at the same place," says one researcher, experimental psychologist Edward Wasserman. "They're equally naive." But a mere two weeks into the experiment the pigeons were identifying the images correctly 85% of the time, reports the Washington Post.

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What's more, the birds were able to take what they'd learned from the first, familiar set of slides and apply it to new images they'd never seen before, boasting a success rate that was just a few percentage points lower. And they performed even better as a flock than individually—with a success rate maxing out at 99% when required to "vote" as a group, reports Gizmodo. It's more likely that robots, not pigeons, will be the ones to take the place of humans someday. But Wasserman hopes pigeons will be taken more seriously and studied more closely. "The pigeon has kind of a bum rap," he says. "Humans are not the only intelligent animals walking and swimming and flying on Earth." It's also helpful, he tells Discover, that they're "workaholics." (Pigeons have a biological GPS.)

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