Microsoft-backed startup launches free AI chatbot Le Chat Mistral

Ten-month-old French start-up Mistral counts Microsoft among its investors (Alamy / PA)
Ten-month-old French start-up Mistral counts Microsoft among its investors (Alamy / PA)

It’s hard not to feel like a kid in a candy store when choosing an AI chatbot. With so many different digital helpers on hand, sometimes you just want to try them all. Thank heavens for pick and mix.

If ChatGPT and Google Gemini have given you a sweet tooth, then it may be worth checking out the latest AI on the block. It goes by the name of Le Chat Mistral, and it’s completely free to use.

At first glance, the new chatbot looks just like its peers. The website, with its simple question-and-answer interface, is almost identical to ChatGPT’s and Gemini’s. But, as usual, there’s something different under the hood.

Or, in the case of Le Chat, there are three things under the hood. Its creator, a French AI start-up called Mistral, essentially lets you choose from a trio of different large-language models. These are the data repositories that enable chatbots to answer questions in a conversational manner.

The best of the three systems is Mistral Large, which the company says is second only to the premium version of ChatGPT, known as GPT-4, in terms of reasoning capabilities. We’ll likely get a better understanding of its true smarts as more researchers test it out.

Still, Mistral claims that you can ask it questions of up to 20,000 words in English thanks to its 32k context window. That’s roughly four times smaller than GPT-4 Turbo, but then Le Chat is free, whereas that bot costs $20 (£16) per month. Mistral Large also supports French, Spanish, German, and Italian.

The start-up shares a major backer with ChatGPT creator OpenAI. Mistral recently secured an investment for an undisclosed amount from Microsoft – a massive coup for a 10-month-old firm. The tech giant previously poured around £10 billion into OpenAI, giving it first dibs on its AI model, which power Microsoft’s own CoPilot AI.

The two companies have differing approaches: Mistral mainly deals in open-source models that others can see the inner workings of, while OpenAI offers a more closed system. This has put the ChatGPT creator at loggerheads with its estranged co-founder Elon Musk, who has accused the firm of putting profits ahead of humanity.

“Microsoft’s trust in our model is a step forward in our journey to put frontier AI in everyone’s hands,” said Arthur Mensch, co-founder and chief executive of Mistral.

For now, the chatbot is still in preview mode. Mistral describes it as a beta release that could come with some “quirks”. Translation: Expect errors in its responses.

How long the freebies will last is anyone’s guess. Power-hungry AI is extremely costly to run, and only the smallest models can be made to work natively on phones and laptops. Maybe, the tech industry is getting us all hooked on its sweet treats before asking us to pay up. Better make the most of it while you can.