An Iowa school district is using AI to ban books

The system has already flagged 19 titles for removal.

SERGIO FLORES via Getty Images

It certainly didn't take long for AI's other shoe to drop, what with the emergent technology already being perverted to commit confidence scams and generate spam content. We can now add censorship to that list as the Globe Gazette reports the school board of Mason City, Iowa has begun leveraging AI technology to cultivate lists of potentially bannable books from the district's libraries ahead of the 2023/24 school year.

In May, the Republican-controlled state legislature passed, and Governor Kim Reynolds subsequently signed, Senate File 496 (SF 496), which enacted sweeping changes to the state's education curriculum. Specifically it limits what books can be made available in school libraries and classrooms, requiring titles to be "age appropriate” and without “descriptions or visual depictions of a sex act,” per Iowa Code 702.17.

But ensuring that every book in the district's archives adhere to these new rules is quickly turning into a mammoth undertaking. "Our classroom and school libraries have vast collections, consisting of texts purchased, donated, and found," Bridgette Exman, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction at Mason City Community School District, said in a statement. "It is simply not feasible to read every book and filter for these new requirements."

As such, the Mason City School District is bringing in AI to parse suspect texts for banned ideas and descriptions since there are simply too many titles for human reviewers to cover on their own. Per the district, a "master list" is first cobbled together from "several sources" based on whether there were previous complaints of sexual content. Books from that list are then scanned by "AI software" which tells the state censors whether or not there actually is a depiction of sex in the book.

“Frankly, we have more important things to do than spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to protect kids from books,” Exman told PopSci via email. “At the same time, we do have a legal and ethical obligation to comply with the law. Our goal here really is a defensible process.”

So far, the AI has flagged 19 books for removal. They are as follows:

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