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  • Writer's pictureJohn Ennis

Eye on AI - March 5th, 2021

Welcome to Aigora's "Eye on AI" series, where we round up exciting news at the intersection of consumer science and artificial intelligence!


This week, our focus returns to voice AI, as McDonald’s and Amazon unveiled new voice AI initiatives that once again should transform their respective consumer markets.


McDonald’s Voice AI Could Mark the End of the Traditional Drive Thru

We begin with the news that McDonald’s began testing its AI for drive-thru order-taking in Chicago this week, marking another power move by the fast-food juggernaut to establish itself as the leader in fast food AI.

“McDonald’s is testing out artificial intelligence in a Chicago suburb’s drive-thru in order to keep up with the high demand and to increase efficiency,” writes WMMR contributor Laila Abuelhawa. “The plan is to replace human servers with voice-based technology, since slow service, long lines and inaccurate orders have threatened sales. The new AI’s voice has a feminine tone, sounding a lot like Siri or Alexa.”

Way back in September of 2019, you may remember a post we did highlighting McDonald’s purchase of Apprente, a voice-ordering AI startup, to bolster its voice ordering capabilities. That purchase led to the creation of ‘McD Tech Labs’, a new branch of McDonald’s Global Technology team.

While it seemed surprising then that McDonald’s and other fast-food chains were beginning to look to AI to bolster sales and efficiencies and optimize its supply chain, it comes as no surprise now, as it seems the fast-food landscape has been on a neverending transformative process into AI tech since the emergence of the pandemic.

“Companies like McDonald’s, Burger King, and White Castle have been investing more in technology like artificial intelligence upgrades than ever before since Covid-19,” continues Abuelhawa. “The chains have been experimenting with things like smart menu boards, Alexa-like assistants, automated ordering and payment processes, and even payments driven by facial recognition.”

In terms of customer acceptance, voice AI at the drive-thru seems a natural first step for fast food AI adoption. It’s easy to implement, lowers costs, and improves efficiencies. I see it as a sort of testing ground before moving to fully automated AI-powered stores. Should the Chicago tests for McDonald’s prove successful, voice AI will almost certainly move to more locations, gradually building customer acceptance of AI so that additional automation will be made easier, with fully-automated stores seemingly the ultimate goal.

Amazon Makes ‘Alexa Conversations’ Available for Developers

McDonald's isn’t the only massive tech company to make voice AI news this week. According to the VentureBeat article, “Amazon eases voice app development with Alexa Conversations”, Amazon recently made Alexa Conversations available for developers. According to Amazon, it’s the first and only AI-based dialog manager for voice app development and gives companies the ability to use Amazon’s high-powered voice AI to develop brand-specific apps for things like voice ordering, online exhibit walk-throughs, rideshare hailing, etc.

“Alexa Conversations... shrinks the lines of code necessary to create voice apps…. [and] reduces Alexa interactions that might have taken 40 exchanges to a dozen or so,” writes VentureBeat contributor Kyle Wiggrs. “…. Developers supply things like API access and entities the API has access to, in effect describing the app’s functionality.”

Alexa Conversations’ deep-learning AI is highly proficient at understanding intent and utterance through voice command so developers don’t have to define them. It’s powered by two innovations: a dialogue simulator, which generalizes a small sample number of dialogues inputted by a developer into tens of thousands of annotated dialogues, and a “conversations-first” modeling architecture, which uses the generated dialogue to train models to support dialogues beyond the sample dialogues. This gives brands with limited AI capabilities access to the most advanced voice AI algorithms in the world.

“Conversations’ first use case, demoed in 2019, seamlessly strung Alexa apps together to let people buy movie tickets, summon rides, and book dinner reservations. (OpenTable, Uber, and Atom Tickets were among Conversations’ early adopters.),” continues Wiggers. “Now the number of developers who’ve engaged with or published voice experiences using Conversations has grown to ‘thousands,’ Amazon says, including iRobot and The Art Institute of Chicago.”

This whole process can actually be quite simple. Amazon used Conversations to build out Alexa's ‘What Should I Read Next’ and ‘Alexa Greetings’ features, which many developers use as sort of base-line commands for their specific use cases. The Art Institute of Chicago, for instance, altered ‘What Should I Read Next’ to ‘What Should I Look At Next’, while Alexa Greetings can easily be modified to fit branding needs.

This sort of technology could supercharge businesses in desperate need of high-tech pandemic overhauls. It could even help level the playing field for fast food companies falling behind McDonald’s and others in their AI implementation. There is a small––or large, depending on how you look at it––catch: Amazon can use conversational data to improve its AI. In my view, that’s a small price to pay for most brands. For others, especially those trying to compete with Amazon in the AI space, it could be a non-starter.

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