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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 also tried a "flock-sourcing" approach. This involved pooling the decisions from a group of four birds, and led to an impressive 99% accuracy in diagnosis.
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