Experts Call This Mushroom-Identifying App 'Potentially Deadly'

Its creator says it's only meant to be used as a reference.

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Jul 25 2017, 11:00am

Image: Pexels

Foraging for wild food like mushrooms can be a delicious hobby—I was raised on foraged leeks, wild strawberries, forest puffballs, and dandelion greens in midwestern Ontario. But if you don't know what you're doing, foraging for food is extremely risky, even deadly.

That's why some mycologists—scientists who study fungi—and foraging enthusiasts are concerned about a new app that is designed to identify mushrooms in the wild using just a quick phone snapshot.

Mushroom, the app in question, uses photo recognition and artificial intelligence to try to identify mushrooms. The app's creator, Nicholas Sheriff, a product designer in Silicon Valley, told me it was never intended to be a Bible for mushroom hunters. It's simply another reference tool, just like a field guide.

"No one is going to memorize every species of mushroom in the world, even if you're a genius," Sheriff said. "And people want to learn. There's an educational aspect to this."

Sheriff noted that Amanita phalloides, or death cap mushrooms, are becoming more common and is easily mistaken for edible varieties. Last month, doctors chronicled a spate of poisonings in northern California from late last year, where multiple people had mistakenly eaten the common fungi. Fourteen people became ill, including three who needed liver transplants. Sheriff said giving people tools to better identify these fungi could help them prevent accidental poisonings.

But that's only if the app works perfectly, which even Sheriff admits it doesn't. He told me the app is still in a beta stage, and is a labor of love outside of his day job. I downloaded the $5 app on my phone and set out to the Munchies rooftop garden here at the VICE Brooklyn office, with directions to their crop of shiitakes. Unfortunately, the app didn't recognize the 'shrooms as shiitakes. It couldn't recognize them as anything at all.

The Mushroom app struggled to ID a shiitake. Image: Kaleigh Rogers/Motherboard

What happens if the app thinks a mushroom is safe to eat, but it's not? That's the major concern of mushroom experts criticizing the app online. Google trends shows that the most popular search terms related to "mushroom identification" are "edible" and "magic." In other words, people want to know what mushrooms are because they want to eat them, or they want to get high.

Image: Screengrab/Google Trends

Sheriff said that as the app grows and he's able to expand the database, it will become more precise and just as useful as looking up a mushroom in a book. But most foragers will tell you, whether you're using an app or a book, you shouldn't pop anything in your mouth unless you know for certain what it is.

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