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The AI-generated books that could harm you

It’s still early days for generative AI, and countless online publications (including this one) have been preoccupied with its potential for both harm and good. On one side, it may revolutionize industries and how we work forever. On the other hand, it could impact creative sectors, including the livelihoods of artists and writers, for the worse. 

A growing issue is the proliferation of self-published AI-generated books on Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, the leading self-publishing platform online, from travel guides and general gibberish to titles claiming to be written by real, established authors.

Now, a new downside has emerged in relation to the AI-generated book trend: the spread of potentially deadly misinformation. 

Not much room for risk

A report from 404 Media recently shed light on the uptick of AI-generated books about mushroom foraging, identification, and cooking showing up on Amazon. The problem with these kinds of books is the lack of fact-checking on what is a potentially dangerous hobby at the best of times. Mushroom foraging can be risky, particularly when certain poisonous mushrooms, such as False Morels and Death Caps, appear very similar to their non-deadly counterparts. 

Compounding the issue is that these books typically don’t indicate they were written by AI and claim to have been written by human experts (who, on closer research, don’t seem to exist). They have overly long names like The Ultimate Mushroom Books Field Guide Of The Southwest: An essential field guide to foraging edible and non-edible mushrooms outdoors and indoors and ‘WILD MUSHROOM COOKBOOK: A Beginner’s guide to learning the basics of cooking with wild mushrooms for health and flavor, complete with easy-to-follow recipes!. What a mouthful!

After running some of the content and book descriptions through AI detectors, 404 Media found that most of it was AI-generated. Even the images of the so-called experts writing the books were likely AI-generated. 

Sigrid Jakob, president of the New York Mycological Society, which recently warned followers on X about the dangers of these books, told 404 Media:

“There are hundreds of poisonous fungi in North America and several that are deadly. They can look similar to popular edible species. A poor description in a book can mislead someone to eat a poisonous mushroom.”

The Guardian also spoke to some mushroom experts who expressed concern about these books. Cornwall-based foraging guide and field mycologist Leon Frey told the publication that the books seem to encourage using smell and taste to identify mushrooms, which is potentially dangerous and should never be done. 

While Amazon soon removed these specific mushroom-foraging books after the 404 Media article was published, there is no telling how many more books containing misinformation are still featured on the site. 

Fuelling conspiracy

Conspiracy theories are another trend of misinformative AI-generated books that is less deadly but still troubling. Wasim Khaled, CEO and co-founder of Blackbird.AI, told CNET:

“As AI blurs the line between fact and fiction, we’re seeing a rise in disinformation campaigns and deepfakes that can manipulate public opinion and disrupt democratic processes. This warping of reality threatens to undermine public trust and poses significant societal and ethical challenges.”

A recent Amazon ebook titled Fire and Fury: The Story of the 2023 Maui and its Implications for Climate Change encapsulates Khaled’s point. It purported to document the recent Maui wildfires, which killed 115 people, and briefly became a bestseller in Amazon’s “environmental science” category before it was taken off the site. The book claimed to cover the wildfires from August 8 to 11 despite being published on August 10. It claimed that the wildfires were a pre-planned disaster,  something climate change deniers have latched onto. 

Amazon updates AI guidelines

While it may be some time before we see the full effect of AI-generated misinformation online and in the wider world, Amazon has at least taken some vague action toward addressing the problem. According to Publisher’s Weekly, Kindle Direct Publishing has updated its guidelines regarding AI. Authors must now inform the platform if their book contains any AI-generated content, whether text, images, or a translation. If you used an AI tool to edit or refine content, there’s no need to report it to the platform. 

It isn’t clear what Amazon will do with this information. Currently, it doesn’t disclose which books are completely AI-generated, but a source told Publisher’s Weekly that this could change in the future.

Avoiding AI-generated books

Doing a tiny bit of research before buying an ebook should help. If a book claims to be written by an expert with 20 years of experience in their field, a quick Google search should reveal whether or not this is the case. Look for an official author website, social media profiles, news articles, or academic publications. If nothing legit shows up, it’s likely the author isn’t legit either. Also, be sure to read the reviews to see if previous readers ran into any issues. Check out our article on spotting fake reviews to distinguish legitimate feedback from potentially AI-generated reviews.

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