Strange Stories: from bakery to cancer cells

How an engineer from rural Japan leapfrogged scientific research when he invented a computer vision algorithm to solve the woes of a busy bakery

Transformative ideas can emerge from the strangest places. 

In 2007, an engineer in a small rural town in Japan was tasked to solve a problem faced by a busy bakery. 

🧁 The bakery had two customer insights: 

1. The more varieties they offered, the more bread they sold. Customers loved discovering new and unusual flavors (carbonara croissants, anyone?). 

2. Unwrapped pastries, sitting in open baskets, sold three times better because they appeared freshly baked

They should have struck gold, right?

Not quite. 

They faced a huge problem at checkout. 

Without wrappers, they couldn’t attach barcodes to scan. With the tidal wave of new “bread inventions” that the bakers happily dreamt up, the cashiers were struggling to identify and price the products, leading to long lines and frustrated customers. 

What if there was a machine that could instantly recognize and label bread based on variations like shape, size, and color? Software engineer Hirashi Kambe and his team at a modest tech agency, Brain, went after that problem with a relentless obsession. 

Five years, a recession, and many baked goods later, they emerged with BakeryScan, and the software is now used in bakeries all around the world. 

But the story doesn’t end here. A pathologist at a Kyoto hospital saw the news about BakeryScan and had a strange thought: cancer cells, under a microscope, kinda looked like bread. He wondered if BakeryScan could be adapted to identify cancerous cells. 

Turns out it could. To an accuracy close to 99 percent. 

It was capable of “whole-slide” analysis: instead of analyzing a cell at a time, it could look at an entire microscopic slide and identify cells that might be cancerous, due to variations in shape, nucleus size, color. Sound familiar?

Now being tested in major hospitals in Japan, the cancer-cell detector, based on the BakeryScan algorithm, is a transformative invention that had strange and unlikely origins: bread.

It’s a great reminder that inspiration can strike in the strangest places—and change the world.

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