Should we be worried about AI generated herbal books?
Several people have sent me articles recently on the fact that there are now AI generated foraging guides for sale on amazon with fake authors. My immediate reaction to this was shocked and anxious, and I think I wasn’t alone in that. For a moment, I questioned whether my passionate career was coming to a screeching halt.
These AI guides pose several problems, one of which is that some of them may contain dangerous, misleading or incomplete information. Several news articles came out this week about some mushroom guides that contained dangerous and erroneous advice. One article I read suggested that humans believe AI quite easily, and find it harder to sort fact from fiction than information made by other humans. In this new AI age, we are going to need to consider how much we should trust AI generated information.
This is not really a new phenomenon for us herbalists. There has been generic, washed out herbal advice on the internet for a long time from sites like healthline. It can be hard to pick through the slough of herbal information you find on the internet. The way I’ve always dealt with this is to find herbalists and authors I trust and refer to those when in search of information. Many of the books I have are books from authors that I have met in person, taken classes from and heard speak at conferences. The solution to the AI phenomenon is much the same: learn from trusted teachers and trusted books, learn from direct experience, and always cross reference (refer to more than once source). I get a lot of information from scientific articles as well, and attribute many successes to the nerdy hours I have spend combing through academic language.
To assuage my anxiety about the AI guides, I got on chat gpt to consult the devil himself. I have spent hours on it for the last few days, asking it all kinda of questions and sorting through the answers. One of the first things I asked it was how I can be a successful author in a world of AI generated content. It informed me, in its bullet pointed way, that human connection, deep expertise, authentic voice, community building, and hands-on knowledge will set apart human authors from AI authors. I must say that I brushed my shoulders off a bit as this point, as those are all big focuses of my writing. As someone with learning difficulties myself, I have always focused on providing accessible and very human content that is not only very clear and concise, but engaging.
The second thing I learned by asking for herbal advice and herbal information with chap gpt, and that is that the herbal information on there can only go so deep and so specific. It can put together a formula for your migraines, but it can’t tell you what dose with work for you, whether the herbs are particularly suited to your constitution, or whether the formula will taste good. It recommended that I take feverfew tea without any kind of warning about how that might taste! Yuck.
Something is going to need to be done about these AI books flooding the market. There is apparently AI detection software, and some of these books have been taken down. Some of the books break copyright and other laws as well. Amazon assures us that it is working on solutions, though I must say I’m dubious based on the experiences of Jane Friedman, who informed Amazon that an AI author start publishing under her name. Amazon hesitated to take the content down, saying that Jane hadn’t trademarked her name, and thus the content was not technically in violation. To me, this highlights the dangers of buying from a profit-driven giant like Amazon, who clearly does not have the best interests of the authors or the readers at heart.
Honestly, I hope that Amazon becomes so inundated with crappy AI books that we all have to abandon it and return to buying books from bookstores. I think there is a juicy invitation here to put our trust back in publishers and in bookstores to vet authors and vet books that have credible information. At some point it will simply be too exhausting to do it ourselves!
There is certainly a purpose for AI in our herbal education. I asked it to write me an academic article about the fire ecology of fireweed with citations, and it certainly did that. That said, the USFS article was much better, and because a human wrote it I can trust the citations and information a bit more.
To my colleagues and herbalists-in-arms, I encourage us to lean in to our human-ness. To lean into sharing our direct experiences and stories. To embrace our quirky humor, vulnerabilities and really connect with people. I accept this challenge to be more human. For more funny asides, endearing enthusiasm, and ample ridiculous stories that I’ve accrued over the years. Thanks to all my students that are here for my unique flavor of teaching—Love you all!