School uses ChatGPT to ban books

School uses ChatGPT to ban books

AI Chatbot Used to Remove Books from School Libraries: A Troubling Trend

In an alarming turn of events, the Mason City Community School District in Iowa made headlines prior to the 2023-24 school year for removing 19 books from shelves and placing them into storage. What sets this case apart from the recent wave of book bans across the United States is that the decision to remove these books was influenced by the outputs of an AI chatbot called ChatGPT.

The book removals came after the passage of Iowa state legislation known as Senate File 496. This legislation prohibits discussions on “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” for students in kindergarten through sixth grade, and it also mandates that library books be age-appropriate. Notably, books containing depictions of sex are now deemed illegal in Mason City school libraries.

Implementing this ban proved to be a challenging task for school administrators. Bridgette Exman, the district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction, stated that determining age-appropriateness was subjective. She also acknowledged that it was impractical to manually review every book and filter them according to the new requirements.

Exman noted that filtering books for depictions or descriptions of sex acts was a more objective task. She expressed the need for a system that could provide straightforward yes-or-no answers. To address this challenge, Exman revealed that they turned to ChatGPT for assistance in answering this critical question.

The process of utilizing ChatGPT for book filtering was described as relatively simple. School administrators asked the chatbot, “Does [book] contain a description or depiction of a sex act?” If ChatGPT responded affirmatively, the book was promptly removed from circulation. However, it was discovered that the AI chatbot often gave circuitous answers, providing contextual explanations about the book and its significance before addressing the presence of explicit sexual content. Despite this, there were instances where ChatGPT provided a clear and concise “yes” response.

However, investigative tests conducted by Andrew Paul from Popular Science revealed discrepancies between ChatGPT’s responses and the actual content of the books. While school administrators relied on the chatbot’s confirmation of explicit sex to remove 19 books, Paul’s tests confirmed only four of them contained the specified content.

According to the Gazette, the 19 books that were removed from Mason City school libraries are as follows:

  • Killing Mr. Griffin by Lois Duncan
  • Sold by Patricia McCormick
  • The “A Court of Mist and Fury” series by Sarah J. Maas (counted as one book)
  • Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson
  • Tricks by Ellen Hopkins
  • Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison
  • Looking for Alaska by John Green
  • The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
  • Crank by Ellen Hopkins
  • Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
  • An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
  • The Color Purple by Alice Walker
  • Feed by M.T. Anderson
  • Friday Night Lights by Buzz Bissinger
  • Gossip Girl by Cecily von Ziegesar
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

This controversial use of an AI chatbot to determine the appropriateness of books in school libraries raises several concerns. While the intention behind Senate File 496 was to protect young readers, relying solely on an AI chatbot’s responses can result in the unintended removal of important literary works that foster critical thinking, empathy, and understanding.

Proponents argue that age-appropriate content is crucial for maintaining a safe and nurturing educational environment. However, it is essential to strike a balance that upholds freedom of expression and promotes diverse perspectives in literature.

As technology continues to evolve and influence various aspects of our lives, it is crucial to approach its implementation thoughtfully. Engaging in open dialogue and ensuring human oversight in decision-making processes can help prevent the misuse of AI systems and safeguard the pursuit of knowledge and intellectual growth within our educational institutions.