Officially, it is inaccessible in China: yet many Chinese pupils and students flock to the ChatGPT application, which generates texts via artificial intelligence, to help them with their homework.
Launched last November by a Californian start-up, this conversational robot, capable of producing essays, poems or computer programs in a few seconds, is causing a sensation.
If it caused a rush of investors in the artificial intelligence sector, the star application worries teachers about the risks of cheating and plagiarism.
In China, it is impossible to access it without VPN software, which hides the place from which you are connecting.
This does not prevent dozens of pupils and students interviewed by AFP from using it for a helping hand, when solving a math problem or answering a science question, among other things.
11-year-old Esther Chen says ChatGPT has helped her cut her homework time in half, while her sister Nicole uses it to learn English.
Esther is a student in a competitive school in Shenzhen (south). Previously, she spent four to five hours a day doing her homework.
"My mother stayed up late until I finished my work and we argued all the time," she recalls.
"Now ChatGPT helps me do my research faster."
Students have told AFP that they bought foreign phone numbers or downloaded VPNs to bypass Chinese digital censorship and access ChatGPT.
Online, a seller offers an American number for only 5.5 yuan (0.75 euro). To have an Indian number, it's less than one yuan.
Other solutions exist: on the WeChat messaging application, which is very popular in China, services like AI Life offer to ask ChatGPT a question for you in exchange for one yuan.
Last month, a local news outlet reported that Chinese tech companies including WeChat parent Tencent and Alibaba subsidiary Ant Group were ordered to cut off all access to the program on their platforms.
Chinese state media even accused ChatGPT of spreading "political propaganda from abroad".
Wang Jingjing, Esther's mother, is not worried.
"We've been using VPNs for years. We encourage our girls to get information from different sources," she says.
Ms. Wang is more concerned about the risk of plagiarism, and closely monitors her youngest daughter's homework.
Esther assures that she does not use this tool to do the job for her. But recognizes that her help is invaluable: recently she had to finish a reading sheet on the book "Hold up the Sky" (untranslated) by the famous science fiction author Liu Cixin.
With her week filled with piano lessons, swimming, chess, and rhythmic gymnastics, Esther didn't have time to finish the book.
So she ordered ChatGPT: a summary, a paragraph on each important character and the main themes of the book. Then she wrote the reading sheet herself.
Students also use the software to avoid spending a fortune and time preparing for English exams required to enter a university in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.
"I didn't want to memorize lists of words or entire conversations," Stella Zhang, 17, told AFP.
So instead of paying up to 600 yuan (81.6 euros) per hour for a private teacher, she now chats with ChatGPT.
"It's less pressure... and it allows me to have immediate feedback on my essays," she explains.
In Suzhou (south), Thomas Lau helps, for a fee, Chinese students wishing to attend a foreign university. But he says he has lost dozens of customers, who prefer to use ChatGPT to prepare their files.
Problem: "I used software to check in their application files if parts had been written with artificial intelligence," he says.
"It was the case for many."
The enthusiasm for ChatGPT is also arousing the appetite of Chinese tech giants, such as Baidu, Alibaba or JD.com, who say they are preparing their own chatbot.
But the authorities seem suspicious: Science Minister Wang Zhigang said last month that the state would soon introduce new rules in this area.
08/03/2023 07:37:20 - Beijing (AFP) - © 2023 AFP