Mason City Community School District in Iowa has utilized artificial intelligence (AI) to compile a list of books containing sexual content, leading to the removal of 19 books from its libraries for grades 7-12. The district created a list of frequently objected titles and ran them through ChatGPT, an AI chatbot, asking if the books contained descriptions or depictions of sex acts. Books that received an affirmative response were taken off the shelves and placed in administrative offices for further review.
Among the banned books are Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” and Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple.” Critics argue against this approach, highlighting that AI systems like ChatGPT are not immune to misinformation and hallucinations. Bridgette Exman, Mason City Schools’ Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, defended the process as “defensible.”
ChatGPT’s responses regarding Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner,” one of the banned books, were contradictory. At times, it stated that the book contained minimal explicit content, while later mentioning a description of a sexual assault. This inconsistency raises concerns about the reliability of AI systems in making such determinations.
The selection and removal of books from school libraries were carried out to comply with a new Iowa law signed by Governor Kim Reynolds in May. The legislation pertains to “gender identity and sexual orientation in school districts,” with schools aiming to comply before the upcoming school year. According to the law, school libraries can only house “age-appropriate materials,” defined as topics, messages, and teaching methods suitable for specific age groups. It explicitly excludes materials with descriptions or visual depictions of sex acts.
Given the impracticality of reading every book in the district’s libraries, Mason City School District turned to ChatGPT for assistance. Bridgette Exman explained that the district’s libraries contain extensive collections, making it infeasible to manually review each book for compliance with the new requirements. Therefore, they opted for an AI-driven process to identify books that should be removed from the collections before the start of the 2023-2024 school year.
The use of artificial intelligence in this context highlights both the potential and limitations of AI systems. While they can assist in streamlining processes and identifying content that may not align with specific criteria, they are not infallible and can produce conflicting results. The ongoing debate surrounding AI’s role in decision-making, particularly in sensitive areas such as book censorship, emphasizes the need for careful consideration and human oversight when implementing such technologies.