Artificial Intelligence at the Drive Thru

robot-serverThe Washinton Post reports: At this fast-food drive-through, the person taking your order might not be a person at all. Welcome to the new era of fast food, where the robot revolution is well underway. The inexorable march toward automation continues. I’m going to comment on the interesting bits.

The drive-through window is often considered the most harrowing assignment inside a fast-food restaurant. A nonstop whirlwind of multitasking, the gig involves organizing multiple orders, communicating with the kitchen, counting money and negotiating with a stream of customers who range from polite and coherent to angry and inebriated –– all for a minimum-wage reward.

Taking orders is a tough job.

If that juggling act wasn’t hard enough, a giant timer hangs in many drive-through kitchens, adding urgency to each task, former workers say.

I’ve seen these clocks in the local A&W. Time to serve a customer must therefore be a success metric for the business (or companies wouldn’t invest money in these timers).

Though the drive-through gantlet has broken many a fast-food worker, the newest employee at Good Times Burgers & Frozen Custard in Denver will not be feeling the heat anytime soon. That’s because she’s an artificially intelligent voice assistant –– emotion-free and immune to stress –– with the ability to operate a drive-through window without fatigue, bathroom breaks or compensation.

Hopefully she will be less annoying than the interactive voice response (IVR) robots that plague customer service and constantly have me pressing 0 in hopes of reaching a real person. But given that the goal is to decrease the time to serve a customer, making her as intelligent and direct as possible must be a minimum viable product (MVP) requirement.

She fills a classically American job nearly a century in the making, a rite of passage for generations of teenagers that could be in the very early stages of a mass extinction. But first Rob Carpenter, the chief executive and founder of Valyant AI, an artificial intelligence company that designed the customer service platform, will have to prove that his model works as well as he says it does.

She must reduce costs without annoying customers and reducing sales. Seems fairly easy to know when this is the case.

The AI assistant has endured months of testing but officially began handling the restaurant’s breakfast orders last week. If the fledgling assistant runs into any technical issues, the transaction is handed off to a human employee inside the restaurant.

I wonder what the failure rate is. I can imagine that anyone with poor English could be a problem for this system.

“The system takes a lot of friction out of interactions between customers and employees,” Carpenter said, noting that the AI was designed to sound like an amiable woman’s voice. “The AI never gets offended, and it will just keep talking to you in a very calm and friendly voice.”

That could be annoying. I like that my local Starbucks workers have senses of humour and get excited when I’ve brought my dog Russel to see them.

There’s an immediate benefit for employees, as well, Carpenter maintains. “Over the course of an eight-hour shift, they don’t have to repeat the same welcome language hundreds of times,” he said.

At the expense of a job, this seems like cold comfort.

Intelligent, interactive machines, once the stuff of sci-fi movies and futuristic fantasy, are quickly becoming a reality, especially in the fast-food world, where repetition rules and improvisation is limited. In restaurants around the globe, machines are already taking orders, flipping burgers, preparing pizzas, pouring stiff drinks and cooking entire meals in full view of hungry customers.

Restaurant automation does seem to be on the cusp of a huge leap.

Fast-food restaurants like Starbucks, Wendy’s, Panera and McDonald’s encourage customers to order using self-service kiosks or a mobile app. But Valyant AI appears to be one of the first companies to create a platform for taking orders via an interactive AI voice assistant — one that also happens to be the first company representative many customers will encounter. Carpenter said the assistant’s conversational cadence –– which sounds like a more fluid version of Amazon’s Alexa –– was designed to replicate human interactions, with limited pauses and a menu-based script that varies depending on the exchange.

The problem with MacDonald’s ordering kiosks (which, admittedly, I haven’t used since the first came out and were terrible) is that it takes so long to navigate the menu that, by the time you’ve ordered, you would already have made it through the line and ordered in person. At the drive-thru, presumably you will have no choice. If the technology is too clunky, people will go elsewhere.

A recent study from QSR Magazine that found that 70 percent of fast-food restaurant sales now occur at the drive-through window, a number that has led to an increase in traffic and wait times for food. Customers waited an average of 234 seconds for their burger and fries in 2018, compared with about 225 seconds the year before, according to QSR. Wendy’s holds the record for the shortest wait time, a blazing 116 seconds, which was set in 2003, the magazine reported.

And this is indeed the issue. There is one KFC location in my area that I refuse to go to, because orders often take upwards of 15 minutes. A technology that can drive down wait times without out increasing (or even decreasing) staff will be a sure winner.

Carpenter said his company’s voice assistant was designed to increase the speed of service. Initial tests, which began last fall, showed about a 25 percent reduction in order time. With more efficiency comes more profitability and with more profitability comes more locations and jobs. Carpenter remains adamant: His robotic worker will not cost people their jobs.

Though one restaurant chain may open more locations due to increased productivity, fast food is something of a zero sum game. At a given price, a fairly fixed number of people are able to afford to eat it. Of course, cost savings could be used to reduce prices, allowing more people to afford to eat out, but this would take away from the owner’s ability to license additional locations. Also, the profits from fast food restaurants are controlled by a large degree by the franchiser, not the franchise owners.

Critics claim that tools like Carpenter’s assistant will ultimately harm more workers than it helps. Erikka Knuti –– communications director for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union –– said too many businesses treat customer service as a line-item cost instead of an investment. In addition to eliminating jobs, she said, removing people from transactions degrades the product that businesses are selling.

If you are selling convenience and the system improves convenience by decreasing order times, you have improved customer service.

“Retailers and businesses underestimate the importance of the customer service interaction –– that point when a customer hands over their money and they get a warm smile in return that tells them they’re valued,” she said.

And yet Amazon, which has little human interaction, is dominating with high availability of products, low prices, and a convenient self serve system.

“These companies are saying, ‘We don’t care about you, and we don’t care if you’re getting better service,’ ” she said. “They’ll say it’s more efficient, but I don’t know any situation where somebody said, ‘I’m really glad that there wasn’t somebody there at customer service or checkout when I needed help.’ ”

As long as the system is able to fall back to a manager when it’s unable to solve a problem, and it’s more efficient for the vast majority of transactions, people are going to prefer it.

Carpenter thinks widespread automation inside restaurants is inevitable and will eventually create a two-tiered restaurant experience. Customers seeking convenient fast-food options will wind up at restaurants staffed primarily by machines. But those seeking slower, more high-end dining options will end up at establishments staffed by human employees.

I agree that automation will start in fast food, but I can see at least partial automation spreading to most restaurants. For example, even a high end restaurant could automate mixing drinks. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have a human bartender or waiters.

“These trends are about giving the customer more choice,” he said.

They are about making companies more efficient. Smaller restaurants that can’t afford to automate will be forced out of business, ultimately leading to less choice.

I find the assertions made by unionists (machines can’t replace people) and automators (machines won’t replace people) to be equally false. People who refuse to see that AI will automate more and more jobs over time are whistling past the graveyard. People who tell you their automation products won’t eliminate the need for more and more jobs over time are blowing smoke.

In the end, efficiency will rule. Market forces are like the cruel realities of the animal kingdom. Companies that evolve will survive, those that won’t or can’t will face extinction.

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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