McDonald’s Is Ending Its Drive-Through A.I. Test

Jonathan Maze, Restaurant Business Online:

McDonald’s is ending its two-year-old test of drive-thru, automated order taking (AOT) that it has conducted with IBM and plans to remove the technology from the more than 100 restaurants that have been using it.


McDonald’s has taken a deliberative approach on drive-thru AI even as many other restaurant chains have jumped fully on board. Checkers and Rally’s, Hardee’s, Carl’s Jr., Krystal, Wendy’s, Dunkin and Taco Johns are either testing or have implemented the technology in its drive-thrus.

Some of those chains “fully on board” with A.I. order-taking are customers of Presto which, according to reporting last year in Bloomberg, relied on outsourced workers in the Philippines for roughly 70% of the orders processed through its “A.I.” system. In a more recent corporate filing, human intervention has fallen to 54% of orders at “select locations” where Presto has launched what it calls its “most advanced version of [its] A.I. technology”. However, that improvement only applies to 55 of 202 restaurant locations where Presto is used. It does not say in that filing how many orders need human intervention at the other 147 locations.

Perhaps I am being unfair. Any advancements in A.I. are going to start off rocky, and will take a while to improve. They will understandably be mired in controversy, too. I am fond of how Cory Doctorow put it:

[…] their [A.I. vendors’] products aren’t anywhere near good enough to do your job, but their salesmen are absolutely good enough to convince your boss to fire you and replace you with an AI model that totally fails to do your job.

We can choose to create a world where even the smallest expressions of human creativity in our work are eliminated to technology — or we can choose not to. I am not a doomsday person about A.I.; I have found it sometimes useful in home and work contexts. But I am not buying the hype either. The problem is that I think Doctorow might be right: the people making decisions may hold their nose over any concerns they could have about trust as they realize how much more productive someone can be when they no longer have to think so much, and how much less they can be paid. And then whatever standards we have for good enough fall off a cliff.

But the McDonald’s experiment is probably just silly.