A letter-writing and postal service called Merci Facteur is using the latest version of ChatGPT artificial intelligence (AI) to produce correspondence in French from requests in English.
ChatGPT-4, which was released in March, can answer questions and assist with tasks such as composing emails, essays and code by sifting through information, gradually becoming more ‘intelligent’ as it sorts out which content is most useful.
Merci Facteur more polite French than ChatGPT-4
It is possible, for example, to ask it to write a letter in French to an insurance company to cancel a contract.
The result is brief and accurate, although it does not include the customary polite sign-offs found in most French correspondence.
Merci Facteur, which adopted AI from the start, uses humans to manage the output.
It produces a much more detailed letter, with French formatting and polite starts and finishes that can be tweaked for most of the insurance companies selling contracts in France.
Speaking at the end of March, its founder Robin Bourdet said the results of ChatGPT-4, after six weeks of switching to it, were astounding.
“We started in 2004, when I realised that many people no longer had paper, envelopes and stamps in the house and hated post office queues, so have seen some technological changes,” he said.
‘AI just a tool for humans’
“I can see that ChatGPT will move into all sorts of areas: ours is just one. However, it is just a tool and companies will always need humans to check its output.”
He said people who make a living helping non-native speakers deal with French bureaucracy, for example, will probably not be threatened by the technology, but could stand to benefit from it.
“Applied to our service, it creates content much more quickly, and with updates, than someone would be able to do even using their own templates stored on their own computer,” he said.
“But it still requires someone with good French and administrative skills to read and check the letter before it is sent. There will be some jobs threatened, but many opportunities too.”
French service writes and posts letters and greetings cards
Prices per letter start at 89 cents for the first page, going down to 20 cents per page from the third page (up to 20 pages).
It costs 10 cents for an envelope, and 97 cents for a stamp to a destination in France. Options to track the letter also exist.
Merci Facteur’s other services include sending birthday, anniversary and other greetings cards.
Mr Bourdet said this strand of the business particularly appeals to Americans living in France and looking to send cards to friends and family in the US.
Merci Facteur is not the only company offering letter models in France, but is among the most comprehensive.
La Poste has attempted something similar but the service has not taken off, due in part to its clunky website.
French AI company worth billions after moving to US
The release of GPT-4 threw light on another AI company called Hugging Face, which helps firms develop their own AI solutions.
Unlike ChatGPT, where the code driving the AI is secret, Hugging Face is open source.
It makes its money by offering premium services to companies that are not able to make best use of the free code.
Valued at €2billion and with 160 employees, the company’s founders are French and it got a major boost when it was allowed access to the French National Centre for Scientific Research’s supercomputer for 17 days to train language modules.
However, the company is based and financed in the US, because when the founders tried to get funding in France, no one was interested.
IT experts call for pause on AI
GPT-4’s release provoked hours of debate about artificial intelligence on French radio and TV after an open letter from 1,000 IT experts, including Tesla’s Elon Musk, called for a six month ‘pause’ in development.
They demanded better safeguards for such software, which they said presents huge risks to society.
Many commentators said it was likely that Musk, one of the pioneers of ChatGPT before selling his shares to focus on electric cars, was motivated because he wanted to catch up with the technology himself.
Others have speculated that some of the letter’s right-leaning signatories are worried ChatGPT’s content is too ‘woke’, and they want time to balance its responses.