All posts by yixuanxie2019

AI automated order takers may reshape the future of drive-through restaurants

By Yixuan Xie
Medill Reports

The next time when you shout into the ordering box at a drive-through, you might not be talking to a human but an automated order taker.

Drive-through windows make up about 70 percent of fast-food chains’ sales, according to a recent study from QSR Magazine. But employees often consider this work as the most taxing job for employees inside a fast-food restaurant.

They are taking orders from multiple lanes. They are processing credit cards, cash or scanning loyalty cards. They are putting food into bags. The next thing you know—the soda cup is overflowing.

If all these factors are not enough to stress out employees, the bevy of new tech tools such as mobile ordering apps and self-service kiosks—complicated and often out-of-order—add more frustration, remember that these are often minimum-wage jobs.

According to the 2018 MIT Technology Review, the work force turnover in the fast-food industry jumped to a record high of 150 percent, which means that a restaurant employing 20 workers would go through 30 in the span of a year.

Since restaurants are either understaffed or full of new hires who are not fully trained, wait times increase. QSR magazine reported that the average drive-through time among major brands in 2018 was 234 seconds, compared with 225 seconds a year earlier.

To solve issues of workforce shortage and slowed down service time, three AI companies are working on creating AI-powered voice assistant for order taking. Let’s take a look.

Here’s why these companies believe that AI voice ordering assistant will be the game-changer of the next generation drive-throughs.

  • Faster speed

Seconds matter in fast-food drive-throughs. Potential customers are likely to drive away when there is a long line of waiting vehicles.

Valyant AI piloted a voice-based assistant to take breakfast orders at one drive-through restaurant – Good Times Burgers & Frozen Custard in Denver, Colorado – starting in the fall of 2018. The eatery is seeing a 10 to 25 percent reduction in average wait time, with a few orders hitting 50 percent wait time reductions, according to  chief executive and founder Rob Carpenter.

“While our AI is carrying on a conversation with the customer, the employees are listening to the exchange and actually preparing the food,” Carpenter said. “So we are seeing a lot of situations that by the time the driver leaves the drive-thru speaker and pulls up to the window, the employee is already walking over with their food ready to hand over.”

Given the fact that customers want to get their food as quickly as they can and get out of the drive-throughs, Carpenter believes that it is a very viable possibility for AI to take over the majority of customer orders within the next 5 years.

“If you’re saying it’s going to take 50 seconds to get your food using the AI and 100 seconds to get your food using an employee, I think you’ll see a lot of people opting for the AI system provided the system is accurate,” he said.

  • Improved accuracy

Although QSR Magazine reported that order accuracy rose slightly from 89.4 percent in 2017 to 89.7 percent in 2018, for people who have strong food allergies, any inaccuracy is a life-and-death issue.

That’s the initial reason why Encounter AI came up with the idea of bringing a voice-enabled AI assistant to fast-food drive-through ordering systems. Its technology is currently testing at several drive-through restaurants in the Midwest and on the west coast including a hand full of the top 20 U.S. fast-food brands to handle all three day-parts, said Derrick Johnson, the company’s CEO and former Franchisee and QSR consultant. Due to non-disclosure agreements, he declined to name any of these restaurants specifically.

“I have a friend with a fish allergy. She was like, ‘Hey, don’t cook my chicken sandwich in the same vat of oil that you just cooked the fish.’ The order associate inadvertently didn’t put her order in and it was sending her into very severe allergic reactions,” Johnson said. “So from a voice recognition perspective, we thought that we could precisely understand that order, get that over to the point of sale system and then put an emphasis on the fact that this is an allergy order.”

Johnson declined to provide current statistics on accuracy of its AI voice-ordering platform. But he said accuracy started with at about 85 percent and is continuously improving over time through the process of machine learning.

“Today we handle a normal order at the efficiency of an ordering associate but are monitoring exceptions. So if someone comes in and says ‘I want two bottom buns with my order’ and our system has never heard that before. We want to give it time to learn more of these edge cases,” Johnson said.

Messy language, accents or improper grammar can also result in wrong orders. But it won’t be a problem anymore with the conversational AI technology developed by Clinc, which is currently in late-stage talks with a number of top quick-service restaurant companies in North America to augment the voice control capabilities of drive-thru windows.

Unlike many other voice-powered AI tools, Clinc’s platform is purely data-driven and more flexible, learning from the different ways that people order, according to Dennis Zender, executive vice president of strategy and innovation at Clinc.

“We don’t have decision trees. We don’t have a very scripted approach. We don’t tie into keywords,” Zender said. “We look at sentence structure and have a very advanced setup in order to understand exactly what it is that they are ordering and be able to return a very dynamic response.”

  • Customized up-sell

With more orders collected and more conversations with customers, artificial intelligence enhanced by machine learning can remember customers preferences and make the best decision about which food to promote in future visits. Encounter AI is currently using this technology to avoid bombarding customers with items regardless of their preferences.

“What we’re doing is essentially creating a customer profile,” Johnson said. “Last time a customer ordered a chicken sandwich, onion rings, and a shake and this time she didn’t order a shake. That type of personalization and preference is what we can bring to the edge and we believe that’s where the industry is going.”

In addition to previously placed order, Clinic’s AI platform also remembers customers’ favorite orders to optimize the up-sell opportunities.

“Hey, would you like to place your favorite order or would you like to repeat your last one,” Zender said. “We have the ability to bring that forward in the order process as well.” 

  • Higher profitability

Besides customized up-sell, AI-powered voice assistant helps drive-throughs become more profitable through labor reduction. Johnson said drive-through traffic has increased approximately 30 percent and, often times, fewer employees are required for drive-throughs that are partnering with Encounter AI.

“We were talking to a franchisee and he is doing $400,000 in sales annually, which is not profitable,” Johnson said. “His choice is either labor reduction or closing its doors. What we’re trying to do is to fix those businesses that are small and give them a fighting chance.”

  • Consistent and enhanced customer experience

Having a pleasurable service experience at drive-throughs often amounts to how nice the employee is who takes the order. AI voice-ordering assistants will never sound annoyed, unhappy or tired, contributing to a more consistent customer experience.

And AI companies are making other efforts to help customer experience become more delightful such as Encounter AI’s emotional recognition from voice.

“Is this person happy? Is this person sad? Just first principle customer service nuances like that,”Johnson said. “If this person is speaking in a dull voice, we know that we probably want to come back with more enthusiasm.”

In addition to that, the voice assistant can also adjust its response to customers based on the expressiveness in a customers’ voice. It can sound excited, calm or inquisitive to best match customers’ emotions, creating a positive experience for them.

Despite many concerns that AI will harm the relationship between customers and restaurants due to its lack of human involvement, Valyant AI has seen positive customer adoption  with moments of customer delight.  It’s been a welcome surprise to see customers saying “thank you” even though they know they are talking to AI. In those situations, Valyant’s system will quickly come back with “you are welcome.”

“Those are so easy to overlook but are really critical to the overall experience of making people comfortable with AI,” Carpenter said. “So the next time those customers come back and they remember the last time AI said, ‘You’re welcome,’ they just tend to humanize it a little bit more, be a little more friendly, easygoing, and patient when interacting with the system.”

Despite all the potential benefits advertised by these AI companies, experts have their doubts about the trend of replacing human being with virtual voice assistants. Ken Forbus, an AI professor at Northwestern University thought it is a little early.

“For order taking, language technology could be pretty good for that, except that it’s not clear that it is better than humans,” Forbus said.

Forbus pointed out two issues. One is that, when people order food, they might have questions. Anticipating all the kinds of questions customers might ask could be very hard and that’s when natural language is needed. The other thing is that today’s robots haven’t been smart enough and their sensors are not very good so that they can’t really handle things the way human do.

“The question for my mind is that: is automating the ordering process the right thing or is training your employees” a better way to go? Forbus said.

Photo at top: Valyant AI CEO Rob Carpenter demonstrates how the company’s conversational artificial intelligence platform works at Good Times Burger & Frozen Custard restaurant drive-thru in Denver. (Courtesy of Valyant AI)

ABA TECHSHOW introduces cutting-edge technology for law practices

By Yixuan Xie
Medill Reports

Technology startups plan to stir up legal practices with their latest advances. Fifteen of these companies participated in the Startup Alley at the annual American Bar Association (ABA) TECHSHOW in Chicago through this past weekend.  The innovators demonstrated the integration in law office operations of their new tools for artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and data privacy.

Fifteen startups are featured in the EXPO Hall during ABA TECHSHOW in the Start-Up Alley. (Yixuan Xie/Medill)

Artificial Intelligence

Launched in June 2017, dealWIP, based in New York, helps cut the time spent on processes involved in mergers and acquisitions where buyers and sellers field many questions to make sure that they know and understand the risks associated with the transaction.

Currently managed with buyers or sellers putting their rows of questions in Excel spreadsheets and sending those out, both sides  go back and forth for many rounds,  “a very chaotic process,” said Tunji Williams, co-founder and CEO of dealWIP.

DealWIP’s fundamental innovation created a centralized and secure cloud-based space where the parties can engage in the same process real time and structured the exchange so that the parties can internally collaborate on and keep track of all questions and answers.

Machine learning is used to figure out who is the right person to receive the questions.

“If I’m selling my company and I receive a question from the potential buyer, I’m going to have somebody in my company who is best positioned to answer that question,” Williams said. “So we’re using machine learning technology that helps you figure out whom that question should go to. In the past, this question was sent to an accountant. You should probably send this question to the accountant again without having to think about it yourself.”

dealWIP co-founders, Tunji Williams and James Clarkin-Breslin, attend the startup competition of ABA TECHSHOW. (Yixuan Xie/Medill)

Teruel Carrasco, an attendee at ABA TECHSHOW, said dealWIP is one of the standouts in the Startup Alley and AI is going to be disruptive to the legal industry as a whole.

“It’s lawyers and firms who understand AI and how AI can help them that achieve better results for their clients,” Carrasco said. “However, a smart attorney will look at this as an opportunity to really be strategic about how they develop their relationships with clients. While AI accelerates the decision-making process, it will also take a lot of those administrative tasks away from lawyers.”

Cybersecurity

With increased risks of data tampering and mistrust in the digital world, Kinnami Software Corp., of Boston, offers a service for authenticating electronic files. It creates a digital fingerprint of a document and uses the Ethereum blockchain to store that information and make it irrefutable.

Here is the process illustrated on the website:

“So it’s really useful when you want to do two things. One, if you want to establish that something is authentic, which has not been tampered with or changed once it has been created,” said Sujeesh Krishnan, Kinnami CEO. “The second thing it does is that from an intellectual property copyrights perspective, it establishes that you are the owner of that asset.”

Kinnami CEO Sujeesh Krishnan demonstrates the company’s first product which is launched at ABA TECHSHOW to attendees. (Yixuan Xie/Medill)

Data Privacy

With more demands for instant responses from clients, JurisBytes, a text messaging platform startup based in Atlanta, allows attorneys to contact their clients without disclosing their personal phone number to better define and manage client relationships.

“We don’t want to have that much access. Lawyers need the peace of mind,” said Ryan Mullis, founder and CEO of JurisBytes, who is also an attorney.

Lawyers can see all their clients on an app and when they enter clients’ phone numbers, clients can receive or reply messages just like normal text messaging without downloading anything.

Besides protecting attorneys’ privacy, the platform also sends a daily usage report of the number of messages sent and received every day so that attorneys can better calculate billable hours. Losing track of how much time an attorney actually spent on a case is one of the biggest problems about using cell phones for work, Mullis said.

Launching the platform last week, JurisBytes won the 2019 Startup Alley competition on the opening night of ABA TECHSHOW.

Photo at top: JurisBytes founder and CEO Ryan Mullis (2nd from left), together with three co-founders, presents the startup’s tools/ The company was selected as the most innovative one by TECHSHOW attendees. (Yixuan Xie/Medill)

Neal Sáles-Griffin launches interactive platforms for voters to compare candidates for mayor

Yixuan Xie
Medill Reports

With the largest field of candidates in Chicago history running for  mayor, mayoral candidate Neal Sáles-Griffin created an interactive city budget and searchable questions platforms to help voters make informed decisions on choosing from  the 14 candidates on the ballot for Tuesday’s election.

Sáles-Griffin, CEO of the nonprofit CodeNow in Chicago, defied the standard for traditional candidate forums and developed an online forum of candidate responses to questions about issues such as education, housing, police and taxes.

Sáles-Griffin was inspired to launch the new tools as he campaigned,  talking to more than 10,000 Chicago residents on the streets and hearing what mattered to them, he stated in a press release. Continue reading

The future of shopping expands–grab and go at Amazon’s 4th store in Chicago

By Yixuan Xie
Medill Reports

Amazon launched a fourth automated check-out store in Chicago this month, giving Chicago and Seattle most of the 10 stories open nationally.

The latest Amazon Go store opened at 111 E. Wacker Dr. at the Illinois Center this month,  offering 1,950 square feet of ready-to-eat foods and grocery essentials. Its “Just Walk Out” technology allows shoppers to walk in a store, grab items they want and simply walk out with everything automatically charged.

A store without cashiers or checkouts? Although it sounded like a gimmick when the first Amazon Go store opened to employee testers in 2016 in Seattle at company headquarters. It has expanded rapidly to the 10 stores operating across the U.S, including four each in Seattle and Chicago and two in San Francisco.

Chicago’s first Amazon Go store, located at 113 S. Franklin St., debuted in September 2018. The second and third, which opened in October and November, are located at 144 S. Clark St., and 500 W Madison St.

Photo at top: Chicago’s fourth Amazon Go cashierless store opened this month. (Yixuan Xie/Medill)

Who is the most tech-friendly candidate for mayor of Chicago?

By Yixuan Xie
Medill Reports

Early voting in Chicago’s elections began Tuesday, setting the stage for the winning candidate who will have the opportunity to accelerate Chicago’s already burgeoning tech scene.

Chicago tied for the second most innovative U.S. city with Boston and has become one of the nation’s leading tech hubs, according to a KPMG report released in March.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been an ardent supporter of the tech community since he took office in 2011. He helped create ChicagoNext, an organization that is dedicated to driving Chicago’s tech growth, supported the launch of the city’s biggest tech incubator 1871, and invited many tech companies to move to Chicago.

Continue reading

Chicago mayoral candidates discuss immigrant entrepreneurs

Yixuan Xie
Medill Reports

Four Chicago mayoral candidates offered their strategies on how to support small business owners, particularly among immigrant populations, at a public forum on Wednesday at the Croatian Cultural Center.

The forum was sponsored by more than 10 multicultural organizations representing Indo-American, Muslim, Jewish, Assyrian, Arab American, Asian American communities and others.

Former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot and Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza pointed out that the biggest challenge for small businesses is access to capital. Continue reading