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ChatGPT is assisting school boards in book banning

by John Biggs

In a move that has raised eyebrows among bibliophiles, the Mason City Community School District has turned to artificial intelligence to help it comply with a new law governing the content of books in school libraries.

The AI tool, known as ChatGPT, has been instrumental in the removal of 19 books, including renowned works such as “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood and “Beloved” by Toni Morrison. The Iowa law, SF 496, signed by Governor Kim Reynolds in May, is one of several “parental rights” bills that have been gaining traction among Republican lawmakers.

These laws aim to limit discussions of sexuality and gender identity in schools. Some have drawn parallels between Iowa’s bill and Florida’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” legislation. The new law’s broad and somewhat nebulous language prohibits books that are not “age-appropriate” or contain “descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act.”

The task of complying with such a law is daunting, as Bridgette Exman, the assistant superintendent of Mason City School District, pointed out. She stated that it’s simply not feasible to read every book and filter for these new requirements. This is where ChatGPT comes in. The AI tool is asked whether a particular book contains a description or depiction of a sex act. If the answer is yes, the book is removed from the library.

However, the AI’s interpretation of the law has raised questions about its ability to understand nuance. For instance, the Bible, which contains passages addressing sexual topics and relationships, was not included in the list of banned books. This has led to confusion and debate about what constitutes a description of a sex act.

Exman shared that she received answers from ChatGPT that indicated a book contained sexual depictions but also provided context. For example, Patricia McCormick’s “Sold,” a book about a young girl sold into prostitution, was flagged by the AI. Exman noted that the AI gave a ‘Yes, but’ answer, but the law doesn’t have a ‘yes, but,’ leading to the inclusion of McCormick’s book in the list of removed titles. This story underscores the challenges of using AI to interpret laws that lack clarity and nuance. It also highlights the broader debate about the role of technology in education and the potential implications for freedom of expression and access to literature.

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