McDonald's is aiming to revolutionize the drive-thru industry, entering a strategic partnership with tech company IBM to fully automate their drive-thrus using AI. In a joint statement released by the two companies, they state the move will advance the deployment of IBM’s Automated Order Taking service, reducing the need for human customer service when grabbing a Big Mac in the car.
The deal covers an agreement where IBM will also acquire McD Tech Labs, a company formerly called Apprente that was bought by McDonalds in 2019.
“In my mind, IBM is the ideal partner for McDonald’s given their expertise in building AI-powered customer care solutions and voice recognition,” McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski said on an earnings call, reports CNBC.
Whether the move will actually improve customer service is certainly another issue. AI continues to show significant drawbacks when used in customer-facing roles, and will no doubt require substantial babysitting by human employees while it improves speech recognition – drive-thrus often have communication issues even with human employees, and it remains to be seen whether AI will fare better.
Even more worrying is how poorly AI tends to respond to accents, with Amazon’s Alexa famously having severe struggles with Scottish accents, and people with other accents already having to change their speech to be understood by robot helpers. Now, they will likely have to do so just to get some fries.
This will also have a huge impact on the labor market. McDonald’s current employs around 200,000 staff worldwide, which has halved over the last five years despite consistent increases in restaurant numbers. Tech is thought to be partly to blame, and as McDonald’s continues their “Digital”, “Delivery”, and “Experience of the Future” initiatives, it is only likely to decrease employee numbers further.
However doubtful critics are, McDonalds have already tested the technology in a handful of Chicago restaurants with apparent success. In June, 10 restaurants adopted the Apprente technology and recorded an 85 percent successful order rate, meaning only around one in five required human intervention to take down an order. Not bad, but certainly requiring improvement if it is to be adopted nationwide.
As it stands, an AI assistant will likely not make its way to your local McDonald’s in the near future, but the implications of such a large partnership will certainly change up how we grab fast food. McDonald’s aims to streamline the process with technology, while competitors remain grounded in good old-fashioned human helpers – it will be interesting to see which is preferred by customers.