Why you shouldn't trust AI to identify your mushrooms

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September is prime time for mushroom foraging, provided you’re armed with the right information. Experts are warning novice foragers to steer clear of potentially deadly books for sale on Amazon that appear to have been written by artificial intelligence chatbots, such as ChatGPT, 404 Media reports.

Forager Alexis Nikole Nelson is among the members of the foraging community sounding the alarm. “Please do your due diligence if you’re looking for a foraging book,” she said in a TikTok post. “Look for reputable authors like Sam (Samuel) Thayer or John Kallas or Ellen Zachos. And don’t believe everything that you see on the internet.”

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Nelson highlighted two suspect guides in her post, including Edible Wild Plants of the Midwest by “prolific foraging blogger” Chris M. Wilson, who doesn’t appear to exist. “It’s just insane to me that this is a thing that can happen. And I’m so worried that someone who doesn’t know any better is going to legitimately poison themselves because of this.” (At time of writing, the book was listed on Amazon as “Currently unavailable.”)

The Guardian submitted four of the foraging books in question to Originality.ai, an AI content and plagiarism checker. All four scored 100 per cent, meaning that its detection systems are “highly confident” that the guides were written by a chatbot, not an experienced wild mushroom forager. (Amazon is reportedly looking into the matter.)

The New York Mycological Society also issued a warning on social media: “Please only buy books of known authors and foragers, it can literally mean life or death.”

The risk is very real and poisonous look-alikes abound. The edible velvet foot (enokitake) resembles the deadly galerina (Galerina marginata), for instance. And the appropriately named death cap mushroom could easily be mistaken for an edible puffball or straw mushroom, according to the Beaty Biodiversity Museum.

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(Also known as Amanita phalloides, the death cap’s highly poisonous nature is at the centre of a triple homicide investigation in Australia.)

While you might feel confident identifying popular edible mushrooms such as chanterelles, porcini and matsutake, there are hundreds of poisonous species in North America, Sigrid Jakob, president of the New York Mycological Society, told 404 Media. Several of them are lethal.

The AI-generated foraging books are “totally irresponsible,” biology professor Myron Smith, a fungi specialist at Carleton University, told the Guardian. “Some of the differences between edibles and non-edibles are very subtle and it really takes an experienced eye and knowledge to discriminate between them.”

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