Bird Brain? How Pigeons identified Breast Cancer as well as Humans

PIGEONS WITH TRAINING did just as well as humans in a 2015 study testing their ability to distinguish cancerous from healthy breast tissue samples.

The pigeons were able to generalise what they learned correctly spotting tumors in unseen microscope images.

A team of scientists from the University of California Davis Medical Center and University of Iowa placed pigeons in a conditioning chamber fitted with a touch-screen monitor. Eight pigeons were shown images of benign or malignant tissue samples at three levels of magnification, at different orientations and at different brightness levels. The birds made a diagnosis by pecking on a blue or yellow rectangle on the screen, receiving a tasty reward for each tissue sample they correctly identified.

After two weeks of training, the pigeons reached a level of 85% accuracy – the pooling of decisions from a smaller group of birds led to an impressive 99% in diagnosis.

Pigeons can distinguish identities and emotional expressions on human faces, letters of the alphabet, misshapen pharmaceutical capsules and even paintings by Monet vs Picasso

said Prof Wasserman, co-author of the study.

Despite the outputs of the study, it is unlikely the pathologists and the essential medical skills they have spend years acquiring will be replaced by pigeons. Whilst they have demonstrated an ability to judge and diagnose, a pigeon’s bedside manner remains to be proven to an audience beyond Prof Wasserman.

Yet, in substituting pigeons with artificial intelligence (AI), the interface between humans and technology becomes immediately more unclear. The RICS report The Impact of Emerging Technologies of the Surveying Profession[1], published by Remit Consulting, suggests 88% of a chartered surveyor’s duties will be automated in the next 10 years. The potential of machine learning applying techniques of data analysis and natural language processing (NLP) is not to be underestimated; it offers our industry the potential to generate insight, intelligence and solutions historically unimaginable. To provide clarity in noisy environments.

Counter-intuitively however, the increased adoption of technology requires a richer understanding of the driver’s and irrationality of human behavior. For example, almost 4 years ago, Microsoft released its Tay AI chatbot which anyone could interact with via Twitter (and thereby train it) – within 16 hours its conversation had extended to racist, inflammatory and political statements (at one point citing Hitler) and had to be shut down.

A year later, Amazon shelved its machine-learning programme for recruitment, having recognised that its algorithm, by applying historical data, had embedded a gender bias and was discriminating against women.

In learning from these examples, we maintain that the application of technology and human skills should not be mutually exclusive but instead structured to be complimentary. Insight is more powerful when applied with empathy and as enabler of critical thinking. Adapting David Ogilvy’s quote

we all have the tendency to use [tech] as a drunk uses a lamppost, for support not for illumination.

At Akerlof, we promote innovation and technology to deliver efficiencies but do so with a rich understanding of human behavior. We recognize the challenges of applying rational rule-based technologies in environments where instinctive, emotional responses prevail.

We therefore look to ensure that modern methods and solutions are tailored and applied appropriately to suit our clients, their teams, skills and the context. Technology that is right for the context and people.

Horses for courses, not pigeons for pathologists.


Jamie Hillier


With a penchant for tweed and jackets with leather arm patches, Jamie began his career as a quantity surveyor, before climbing the ladder to lead major projects for a Tier 1 contractor.

Eventually expanding his book collection beyond copies of SMM7, Jamie has interest in a broad range of subjects linked to delivering better outcomes for society and the environment.

His strategic insights on MMC and behavioural science have made their way into numerous government, industry and academic publications, including the Construction Playbook, Transforming Infrastructure Performance Roadmap to 2030, the Platform Rulebook and the RIBA DfMA Overlay.

John Handscomb


Construction is in John’s blood. Learning from his father who was a planner and project manager, John began his career by working on some iconic projects in both the public and private sector.

As a procurement expert and integrator of new ways of working, John has pioneered the integration of platform principles, DfMA processes and supply chain within over £5bn projects in the last 15 years, for some of the largest building programmes in the UK. Despite his considerable expertise, John keeps it simple, communicating complicated ideas with ease and helping to equip the industry with new knowledge and skills.

Outside of Akerlof, John enjoys his executive role with technology start-up ScanTech Digital, spending time with his family, taking trips down the football, playing a bit of golf with friends and the odd pint. 

Our name is shared with George Akerlof, a Nobel Prize-winning economist.

His seminal paper, Market for Lemons, demonstrated the devastating consequences of making decisions under the conditions of quality uncertainty and unequal information between buyers and sellers, increasing the chance of buyers ending up with a ‘lemon’.

This 50-year-old concept continues to retain parallels within the construction industry.

Through our insight and experience, we can rebalance this information asymmetry on behalf of our clients, levelling the playing field to deliver better outcomes.