Mason City Community School District in Iowa has made use of artificial intelligence (AI) to compile a list of books containing sexual content, resulting in the removal of 19 books from the shelves of its libraries for grades 7-12. The district created a list of titles that have previously been objected to or called for removal. These titles were then inputted into ChatGPT, an AI chatbot, with the question, “Does [book] contain a description or depiction of a sex act?” If ChatGPT responded affirmatively, the book was removed from the libraries and stored in administrative offices for further review.
Among the banned books are well-known titles such as Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” and Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple.” Critics argue against this strategy, as AI systems like ChatGPT are not immune to misinformation and hallucinations. Popular Science spoke to Bridgette Exman, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction at Mason City Schools, who defended the method as “a defensible process.” Popular Science also questioned ChatGPT about “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini, one of the banned books, and received conflicting responses. At one point, the AI claimed the book contained little to no explicit content, but later stated it included “a description of a sexual assault.”
The process of selecting and removing books from school libraries was carried out to comply with a new Iowa law signed by Governor Kim Reynolds in May. The legislation relates to “gender identity and sexual orientation in school districts,” and schools aim to adhere to the law by the start of the upcoming school year. According to Senate File 596, school libraries can only contain “age-appropriate materials,” which are defined as topics, messages, and teaching methods suitable for specific age groups based on their cognitive, emotional, and behavioral development. The definition explicitly excludes any material with descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act.
Reading every book in the district’s libraries is impractical, which is why Mason City School District turned to ChatGPT. “Our classroom and school libraries have vast collections consisting of texts purchased, donated, and found,” Exman explained to The Gazette. “It is simply not feasible to read every book and filter for these new requirements. Therefore, we are using what we believe is a defensible process to identify books that should be removed from collections at the start of the 23-24 school year.”
Artificial intelligence continues to play a significant role in various sectors, including education. In this case, the Mason City Community School District has employed AI to assist in the selection of age-appropriate materials for its libraries. While the use of AI may expedite the process, concerns have been raised about the reliability and accuracy of the system. Critics argue that AI systems like ChatGPT are not infallible and can produce contradictory or misleading responses. However, supporters believe that this method is a practical solution to comply with the new Iowa law, given the vast number of books in the district’s libraries.
As AI technology continues to advance, it is crucial to ensure that its implementation is accompanied by robust oversight and human judgment. While AI can provide valuable assistance, it should not replace critical thinking and careful evaluation. The Mason City Community School District’s use of AI in this context raises important questions about the limitations and potential risks associated with relying solely on AI for decision-making in sensitive areas such as education and censorship.