Artificial intelligence: how Probayes from Isère imagined the future digital postage stamp

When the red stamp will bow out on January 1, 2023, it will not be replaced, but supplemented by a novelty signed by La Poste: a digital stamp, which will take the form of an eight-character code and will allow users who do not have no printer, or unable to go to a post office, to send their mail day or night. And this, at the same price as a green stamp (1.16 euros for shipments up to 20 grams).

Generated by a fairly complex algorithm embedded in a mobile application, it will be able to issue several million codes over eight characters, while tolerating a certain margin of error for users who will then report the code manually.

Internally, the work is complete and the implementation of this novelty has even already been carried out within the mail logistics chains. “There may only be a few more adjustments to be made based on input from the latest internal test users, but we are ready for product launch. », announces Pierre-Etienne Bardin, Chief Data Officer of the La Poste group.

A need for immediacy not covered

“This topic was clearly anchored in our 2021-2030 strategy, as data and AI were identified as part of the group’s 5 acceleration topics. Our challenge now is to show how we can create value and have an impact on the transformation of the group with this tool, by having a positive impact on both our customers and our employees”, he adds.

After having already used AI in other applications such as the recognition of addresses present on letters, or the reading of customs forms which is now processed automatically, it is by looking into the question of uses that the he idea of ​​the digital stamp appeared to the postal group: ” We already had the traditional stamp, the stamp purchased directly online, and there was also an unmet need for immediacy, for people who did not have a printer and who wanted to be able to frank a letter outside opening hours. opening of sales offices “, adds Pierre-Etienne Bardin.

With a user target already thought of as broad, and which would above all respond to an existing hole in the racket in terms of uses: “We do not think that this innovation will be aimed at a particular audience, young or old, but rather at a moment in life that can happen to all of us, and where until now there was no answer for sending a letter”.

Moreover, the Post office affirms it: “The idea is not to replace the physical stamp, because still in terms of use, it is easier to stick 10 stamps when you have a larger volume of envelopes to send, than to copy 80 digits. This is where we see that the sending methods can be complementary », assures Pierre-Etienne Bardin.

Probayes, the (Isère) engine of AI within the group

The group has therefore launched work around its mobile application, under the direction of its Grenoble subsidiary Probayes, a company specializing for 19 years in data and artificial intelligence. Based in Montbonnot-Saint-Martin, near Grenoble, it became a subsidiary of La Poste in 2016 and is now part of the new division dedicated to data and AI headed by its Docaposte entity, and which now brings together nearly 400 employees.

“The strength of the La Poste group is that it already has in-house skills, in particular with the acquisition of Probayes, which enabled us to quickly gain in maturity. This has helped us to move forward on issues where there is not yet available technology, we have a total of several hundred projects per year in the field of data and AI which affect both our banking activities, insurance, etc. », Displays Pierre-Etienne Bardin.

While Probayes worked mainly around the algorithm engine, internal teams will also have participated in the developments necessary to integrate it into the architecture of the existing mobile application. Nearly a year will have passed between the premises of the idea, and the realization of the first internal tests, mobilizing a total of 10 to 20 collaborators.

“More than a dedicated budget, this innovation will above all have represented human development time for the group since we have not made any other investment, such as the purchase of software or equipment. All the work was carried out internally by our own resources, which represents a competitive advantage”, assures its Chief Data Officer.

On the side of innovation itself, it is based on two bricks: ” a part related to the software architecture, and a part dedicated to the generation of the code on 8 characters, which can generate several million codes on eight characters while tolerating a low margin of error in terms of reading during mail processing »details Kamel Mekhnacha, CEO of Probayes.

If the Post remains discreet on the reliability rate of its code, as well as on the maximum volume of codes generated, it specifies that this remains “high”, “even more than what we had before the recognition of addresses”.

The right compromise between a tamper-proof solution and the customer experience

The new dedicated mobile application, Buy a digital stamp, also had to deal with several imperatives:

“We had to find the right compromise between a tamper-proof and secure solution, but also the fact of wanting to facilitate the customer experience, by allowing him, for example, to copy a code that is not too long or complex by hand”, specifies Kamel Mekhnacha.

This therefore required combining skills in software architecture, mathematics and in particular cryptography. to be able to generate codes far enough away from others, and that a person cannot generate randomly without the application”.

Another difficulty: that of starting from a new use case for which there was no data. ” We had to work in a very agile way because initially there was no data with which to train our algorithm models. We had to proceed in several steps, first taking synthetic data and then moving forward incrementally by acquiring data inside the group and implementing learning methods “.

Not to mention that it will then have been necessary to adapt the mail supply chain of the postal group, which already automatically detects certain parameters such as addresses or postage, to the recognition of this new alphanumeric code, through a vision system by computer.

From digital stamp to digital parcel

A few months before the launch of this new offer, La Poste has not set itself a volume target: “ The idea is to come in addition to our classic offers, we have not set specific targets. It will already be a success if this stamp has served users “Slips Pierre-Etienne Bardin.

With the next step, that of the parcel: because if the digital stamp will, for the moment, only be accessible for sending letters of 20 grams, the French postal operator is already thinking about adapting it to larger supports such as the parcels.

But it will also present other challenges: The industrial scheme of mail is not the same as that of mail and requires implementing it on different supply chains, which were not yet as mature in AI. It is the same for the value and the role of the label of a parcel, which still today makes it possible to transmit a greater number of information such as the weight, the recipient and the origin of the parcel, its content, customs information, etc. “, nuances Pierre-Etienne Bardin.

However, La Poste is already convinced of the need to pass this new stage. And the group is not quite the only one in Europe because Switzerland already offers a similar system, but with a code that now has 13 digits. ” ” This is not the option we have chosen for the customer experience”slips Pierre-Etienne Bardin.