Tuesday, April 16, 2024

A.I.-written field guides sold on Amazon could get you killed: ‘The authors are invented, their credentials are invented’

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Field guides have always varied in quality. But with more manuals for identifying natural objects now being written with artificial intelligence chatbots, the possibility of readers getting deadly advice is increasing. 

Case in point: mushroom hunting. The New York Mycological Society recently posted a warning on social media about Amazon and other retailers offering foraging and identification books written by A.I. “Please only buy books of known authors and foragers, it can literally mean life or death,” it wrote on X. 

It shared another post in which an X user called such guidebooks “the deadliest AI scam I’ve ever heard of,” adding, “the authors are invented, their credentials are invented, and their species ID will kill you.” 

Recently in Australia, three people died after a family lunch. Authorities suspect death cap mushrooms were behind the fatalities. The invasive species originated in the U.K. and parts of Ireland but has spread in Australia and North America, according to National Geographic. It’s difficult to distinguish from an edible mushroom.

“There are hundreds of poisonous fungi in North America and several that are deadly,” Sigrid Jakob, president of the New York Mycological Society, told 401 Media. “They can look similar to popular edible species. A poor description in a book can mislead someone to eat a poisonous mushroom.”

Fortune reached out to Amazon for comment but received no immediate reply. The company told The Guardian, however, “We take matters like this seriously and are committed to providing a safe shopping and reading experience. We’re looking into this.”

The problem of A.I.-written books will likely increase in the years ahead as more scammers turn to chatbots to generate content to sell. Last month, the New York Times reported about travel guidebooks written by chatbots. Of 35 passages submitted to an artificial intelligence detector from a firm called Originality.ai, all of them were given a score of 100, meaning they almost certainly were written by A.I. 

Jonathan Gillham, the founder of Originality.ai, warned of such books encouraging readers to travel to unsafe places, adding, “That’s dangerous and problematic.” 

It’s not just books, of course. Recently a bizarre MSN article created with “algorithmic techniques” listed a food bank as a top destination in Ottawa, telling readers, “Consider going into it on an empty stomach.”

Leon Frey, a field mycologist and foraging guide in the U.K., told The Guardian he spotted serious flaws in the mushroom field guides suspected of being written by A.I. Among them: referring to “smell and taste” as an identifying feature. “This seems to encourage tasting as a method of identification,” he said. “This should absolutely not be the case.” 

The Guardian also submitted suspicious samples from such books to Originality.ai, which said, again, that each had rating of 100% on its A.I.-detection score.

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