Good morning. It’s Thursday. Today we’ll look at travel guidebooks of New York City that appear to be generated by artificial intelligence — and what Amazon says it has done about them.
As tourism has rebounded, something new has mushroomed: guidebooks apparently prepared with artificial intelligence software. Two of The Times’s travel writers, Seth Kugel and Stephen Hiltner, found that some had climbed toward the top on Amazon search results.
They focused on guides to France. What about guides to another popular destination — New York?
I did a search on Amazon that pointed to at least a dozen guidebooks to New York City that appeared to contain A.I. wordsmithing. Their titles all begin with the same five words and a date — “New York City Travel Guide 2023.”
Their subtitles begin with action verbs like “Discover” or “Explore” or “Embrace” and tend to be long. One was 29 words: “Discover the Vibrant Heart of the Big Apple: Your Ultimate Travel Companion to Unveil the History, Art Culture — All You Need to Know Before Planning a Trip to NYC.” (For simplicity, I’ll refer to each one only by its subtitle below.)
Some rapid reading suggested that even the authors were A.I. inventions.
Erica Chanay, listed as the author of “Discover the Vibrant Heart of the Big Apple,” had the same author photo as another author on Amazon — Alicia Carter, whose profile describes her as a nutritionist — and that photo also appears on websites or Facebook pages for an Emma Parker in New York and an Emma Williams in Australia.
We couldn’t reach any of them. (I left a message with the Manhattan financial firm that listed Emma Parker as a senior funding manager; I have not heard from her. The Emma Williams I reached in Australia told me by email she had nothing to do with the photo, and news articles about hiking and biking trips she has taken were accompanied by photos that do not look like the person in the “Discover” photo — if the face in that photo is even that of a person. Software that can detect photos assembled by A.I. suggested that it’s not.)
And then there was Harry Tarbox, listed as the author of “Where to Go, What to See and How to Do It All in New York City.” The only person by that name I could reach through a national database lives in Bradley, S.D., and said he had never written a travel guide.
Nor has he ever been to New York City. “Not even close,” he told me.
In other guides to New York, even passages that sounded personal seemed suspect.
“One evening, I found myself in the enchanting neighborhood of Harlem, drawn by the soulful sounds of jazz music spilling out of a small club,” says a paragraph near the beginning of “The Ultimate Pocket Guide to Explore the Big Apple.” The author is listed as Milo Meadows.
On the artificial intelligence detector Originality.ai, that passage scored 100 percent for A.I. Originality.ai assigns a score from 0 to 100, based on the percentage change that its machine-learning model believes the content was A.I.-generated. It was not the only passage from one of the guidebooks I looked at to score 100 percent.
Some guidebooks had the kinds of errors that could creep in whether the writer is a human or a machine. “Explore the Big Apple Like a Local — Uncover the Secrets of the Streets of NYC!” said that Times Square “is home to some of the world’s largest and most well-known firms including Viacom and CNN.” Viacom changed its name to Paramount last year, and CNN is in Hudson Yards.
“A Comprehensive Guide on All the Information That You Need to Plan a Perfect Trip to New York City” described the Empire State Building as “home to a number of businesses, including The New York Daily News and the New York City Department of Health.” Neither is a tenant, a spokeswoman for the building said. One government official I talked to wondered if an A.I. program had mashed up listings for that city agency with the state Department of Health, whose headquarters are in the Empire State Plaza, the complex adjacent to the State Capitol in Albany?
“Explore the Big Apple Like a Local” said that St. Patrick’s Cathedral “stands in the same position” as an earlier St. Patrick’s. But the first one was on Mulberry Street in Lower Manhattan.
Zane Kerby, the president and chief executive of the American Society of Travel Advisers, told me that these guidebooks “add to the noise” for travelers making plans. And Tiffany Townsend, an executive vice president of New York City Tourism + Conventions, told me, “As the official tourism marketing organization to the city, we want people to have access to accurate information about New York City.”
Lindsay Hamilton, an Amazon spokeswoman, said the company was “constantly evaluating emerging technologies.” She did not say that A.I.-generated guidebooks fall short of the content guidelines, only that all publishers on Amazon must follow them, “regardless of how the content was created.”
She said also said that Amazon investigates “any book when a concern is raised” and removes books that do not meet its content guidelines. Amazon apparently removed several guidebooks after I asked about them last month, including “A Comprehensive Guide on All the Information You Need,” and Hamilton said on Tuesday others were being looked at.
Hamilton added that since last week, Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing had required authors to disclose “A.I.-generated” content — material created by an A.I.-based tool — when they publish a new title or republish an older one with changes.
Amazon said that “A.I.-assisted” content did not have to be disclosed — material by an author who had used A.I. tools to “edit, refine, error-check or otherwise improve” it. But it said it reserved the right to “reject or remove A.I.-generated content that we determine creates a disappointing customer experience.”
In May 1983, I reluctantly reported for jury duty at the courthouse on Centre Street in Lower Manhattan with hundreds of other people.
Eventually, I was seated for a civil trial with five other jurors. During a lunch break, I decided to go to J&R Music World. To my surprise, the juror seated next to me asked if he could come along.
We chatted briefly during the outing and then returned to the courthouse afterward.
At the end of the week, the case was resolved, and we were free to go. As we made our way outside, the juror seated next to me asked if I wanted to have lunch. I said yes, and we walked to the Cloister Cafe on Ninth Street.
The next week we had our first dinner date at Patrissy’s in Little Italy. We have now been happily married for almost 36 years.
You just never know.
— Ellen Colton