260 McNuggets? McDonald's ends AI-driven tests amid glitches

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In the nearly three years since McDonald's announced it was partnering with IBM to develop a drive-thru order taker powered by artificial intelligence, videos have surfaced on social media depicting confused and frustrated customers hilariously But is shown trying to correct the wrong foods.

“Wait! Wait! Wait!” Two friends scream in comical rage on a TikTok video as their order is miscalculated by an AI drive, which counts 240, 250 and then 260 chicken McNuggets.

In other videos, the AI ​​calls out to a customer for nine iced teas instead of one, fails to explain why one customer can't order Mountain Dew and thinks another wants bacon added to his ice cream. .

So when McDonald's announced in an internal email on June 13, obtained by the trade publication Restaurant Business, that it was ending its partnership with IBM and shutting down its AI tests at more than 100 U.S. drive-throughs. has been, so users who have interacted with the Service. Perhaps not surprised.

The decision to abandon the IBM deal comes as many other businesses, including its rivals, are investing in AI, but it illustrates just a few of the challenges companies face as they embrace the revolutionary technology. are jockeying to unlock the potential of

Other fast food companies have had success with AI ordering. Last year, Wendy's partnered with Google Cloud to build its AI drive-thru system. Carl's Jr. and Taco John's have hired Presto, a voice AI firm for restaurants. Panda Express has about 30 automated order takers on its windows through a partnership with voice AI firm SoundHound AI.

Another SoundHound partner, White Castle, has AI assistants taking orders in 15 drive-throughs and plans to roll out 100 more, spokespeople for both companies said. Jamie Richardson, vice president of Whitecastle, said the technology fulfills about 90 percent of orders without human intervention, working efficiently with staff and reducing customer wait times during rush hours.

“It's great for customers; it's just as great for team members,” he told The New York Times. “I can't imagine why other people would invest in similar technology.” But we're really happy with our technology.”

SoundHound chief executive and co-founder Kevan Mohjer believes McDonald's departure is just one example of a failed partnership.

“It was very clear that they were leaving IBM, they were not leaving voice AI,” he said. “They're chasing other vendors very quickly.”

McDonald's confirmed its intention to return to the technology, writing in an internal email that a “voice ordering solution” would be in China's future.

In a statement, IBM said it looks forward to continuing to work with McDonald's, adding that it is in “discussions and pilots” with a number of restaurants that are interested in developing its automated ordering technology. McDonald's confirmed the end of its AI drive to The Times, but neither company would answer more specific questions.

Many researchers and industry experts see the McDonald's leak as an example of how new technology has yet to live up to expectations. He expressed doubt that the company would quickly return to testing AI ordering in its drive-thru. “AI systems often have this huge upfront cost,” said Neil Thompson, director of FutureTech, a research project in computer science and simulation at MIT. Intelligence Laboratory (Future Tech has worked with IBM but Mr Thompson said he had no inside knowledge of the deal with McDonald's).

Currently, voice AI is often inaccurate enough to require some level of human supervision, reducing cost savings, Mr. Thompson said. And McDonald's has a strong alternative offering with higher profit margins: its mobile app.

“The app saves 100 percent of the labor involved in taking that order in a way that these AI systems, at least currently, aren't able to do that for them,” Mr. Thompson said. “It makes it much more economically attractive for them to use an app than to use AI.”

McDonald's hasn't exhausted all of its AI investments. In December 2023, the company announced that it was working with Google Cloud. A spokesperson for the tech giant said it would apply to “business use cases”, declining to be more specific.

Alex Amas, a professor of behavioral science and economics at the University of Chicago, predicts that McDonald's will look to its rival after it explores the technology.

McDonald's business model is not based on the cost savings of a few drive-thru workers. Mr. Amas said. “I think they'll want to wait and make sure this thing is ready for commercial use.”

He expects McDonald's to use AI in other ways, perhaps following the example of Target, which recently announced it was using the technology to help its employees.

Presto interim chief executive Jay Lefebvre acknowledged that the technology is very new — “less than 0.5 percent of all U.S. drive-throughs” are testing the use of AI to take voice orders, he said.

But he also noted that many early efforts have been successful.

Wendy's said in an email to the Times that its AI drive-thru handles 86 percent of orders without human assistance. And Presto has achieved about a 90 percent success rate with most of its clients, Mr. Lefebvre said.

He believes that McDonald's struggled because it used the wrong type of AI.

“The IBM model was still based on natural language understanding,” Mr. Lefebvre said, explaining that the model worked like a tree. When the AI ​​hears a customer command, it has a limited number of branches to follow that dictate its reactions and actions.

It works very well when everything is going well, Mr. Lefebvre said. But at a drive-thru, where undecided customers often change their orders, he said, it would be better to use the kind of big-language model that powers chatbots like ChatGPT.

As companies continue to test their AI drive-thru technologies, expect to see more videos of people grabbing bacon ice cream, condiments instead of food, or enough nuggets to feed a sports team.

But ask Mr. Mahajer where voice AI is headed and he'll tell you why SoundHound has partnered with car companies like Kia and Jeep.

Picture it.

You're on your way home from work when suddenly the car asks, “Are you hungry?”

After a few minutes of chatting from your car, you decide on a burger, fries and a shake. The car finds the nearest greasy spoon, orders for you and plugs in the directions. In three minutes, you'll pull up and there's dinner, sitting patiently in a pickup lane waiting for you to arrive.

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