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McDonald's wants to automate its drive-thrus with A.I.

The fast-food company recently agreed to acquire a tech company whose "speech-to-meaning" technology might soon be interpreting customers' orders.

McDonald's wants to automate its drive-thrus with A.I.
RJ Sangosti / Contributor
  • McDonald's has agreed to acquire Apprente, whose speech recognition technology can supposedly understand complex orders.
  • McDonald's has acquired two other tech companies this year: one that updates drive-thru menus, and another that uses mobile apps to boost customer engagement.
  • The company hasn't said whether the new A.I. is likely to replace human workers.

"Hey there. Welcome to McDonald's. What would you like to order?"

Those are the words you might hear a robot say upon pulling up to a McDonald's drive-thru in the near future. That's because the fast-food company recently agreed to acquire a Silicon Valley-based company called Apprente, which aims to use artificial intelligence to automate the drive-through process.

McDonald's hopes using artificial intelligence will not only reduce service time, but also boost profits — customers might feel less anxious and more inclined to spend when they're dealing with a robot. The company said it might also use Apprente's technology in self-service kiosks someday, and that it plans to form a new group with Apprente employees called McD Tech Labs, which will help to automate drive-thrus.

Apprente's system seems unique compared to other voice recognition systems, which normally use "speech-to-text" models that transcribe what a person says and then try to decipher the meaning. But Apprente says its technology uses something called "sound-to-meaning," which enables it to facilitate "complex, multilingual, multi-accent and multi-item conversational ordering."

The result, according to Apprente, is an A.I. that "offers a more consistent and pleasurable customer service experience with its robotic agents never sounding tired, annoyed, unhappy, or angry." Whether that means human McDonald's employees will soon be replaced by this ever-happy A.I. remains unclear. McDonlad's move comes as minimum wages are rising and fast-food restaurants are struggling to fill job positions.

McDonald's has also acquired two others tech companies this year. In March, the company bought Dynamic Yield, which changes digital drive-thru menus throughout the day based on factors such as weather, time, and customer order profiles. In April, the company invested in New Zealand app-designer Plexure, which helps connect customers to its new smart drive-thrus, loyalty programs, special offers, and more.

"Building our technology infrastructure and digital capabilities are fundamental to our Velocity Growth Plan and enable us to meet rising expectations from our customers, while making it simpler and even more enjoyable for crew members to serve guests," McDonald's CEO Steve Easterbrook said in a statement.

It's also a way for McDonald's to keep up — or lead the way — with a fast-food industry that's increasingly turning to technology to streamline business. For example, Wendy's has already been using self-serve kiosks in some of its stores for years, and Kentucky Fried Chicken has already experimented with robot workers in China. "As we see the rising costs of labor, it just makes sense," Leonard Comma, the CEO of Jack in the Box, said in 2018.

McDonald's declined to say whether its new automated drive-thru system will replace human employees. But if it does, you have to wonder how long it'll be before people who work similar customer-interfacing jobs might find themselves out of work, too.

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