Arts & Culture

Meet Chef Roberto Pérez: Revitalizing Chicago’s Puerto Rican food scene

By Justin Agrelo
Medill Reports

Puerto Rican chef Roberto Pérez doesn’t eat pork.

He confesses this to me from behind the steering wheel of his black Volvo on a cold Monday a few weeks ago. We’re driving through Chicago’s Austin neighborhood to Rico Fresh, one of Pérez’s favorite grocery stores.

His confession is an obvious break from a stale Puerto Rican stereotype that claims we all love pork. As a Puerto Rican who doesn’t eat much pork myself, Pérez’s views on “the swine” (as he calls it) don’t surprise me. But because people are defined just as much by choices they abstain from as they are by what they choose to enjoy, I ask him about it. Continue reading

Chicago’s green space: Inequitable for 100 years

By: Carly Graf
Medill Reports

This July marks 100 years since 17-year-old Eugene Williams drowned in Lake Michigan. The black teenager unknowingly drifted across 29th street while on a raft—crossing the unofficial demarcation between the white and black sides of a South Side beach. White beach-goers threw rocks at him and knocked him unconscious, causing the boy who couldn’t  swim to drown. No arrests were made despite eyewitnesses.

“Race riots that followed were representative of broader racial clashes over Black Chicagoans’ asserting their rights to recreational space,” said Brian McCammack, environmental history professor at Lake Forest College and author of Landscapes of Hope: Nature and the Great Migration in Chicago. “Similar clashes happened at Washington and Jackson Parks, among others, as African-Americans flooded into the South Side and, almost always, African-Americans were the victims of white aggressors.” Continue reading

Chicago bike shops welcome new wave cyclists

By Carly Graf
Medill Reports

Thanks to 200-miles of bike lanes, the newly renovated Lakefront Trail and more than 130,000 spots to park and lock your bike, Chicago consistently ranks among America’s most bicycle-friendly cities, according to ratings in Bicycle Magazine. But that friendliness wanes if you’re black, Latino or a woman looking to ride.

Yes, we have Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago Streets for Chicago 2020 Plan to increase the number of bike lanes citywide. And Divvy’s bike share D4E plan awards a $5 membership to qualifying low-income riders. But, still, a race and gender gap persists. Continue reading

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)

Mary Schmich is world famous – but you may not know her

By Andrew Donlan
Medill Reports

Mary Schmich was walking to work at the Chicago Tribune, as she did everyday, when she passed a young woman naively soaking herself in some of the first strong rays of sun on Lake Michigan after a long Chicago winter.

“I remember thinking ‘God, I hope she’s wearing sunscreen.’” Schmich said. “And I kept walking and I thought, you know, I’ve just got so much advice I’d like to give to young people.”

She laughed at herself, realizing she’d reached the age where such thoughts even crossed her mind. Later, she fired up her computer, grabbed a coffee and some M&Ms from the vending machine at the Tribune Tower on Michigan Avenue and began writing.

“Wear sunscreen.”

Closer to the end of the summer of ’97, a few months after she passed the sunbathing girl, Schmich got a call from a friend. His sister, who lived in Denver, had sent him an e-mail of a commencement speech by Kurt Vonnegut at MIT. It looked an awful lot like something he had read from her in the Chicago Tribune months earlier, he said.

“You better get on this,” he told her. Continue reading

A mosquito can become a video game hero in Japan

By Jessica Xieyang Qiao
Medill Reports

A lone mosquito patrols the Yamada family to stock up on blood for the coming winter. You are Mister Mosquito, an uninvited guest who pesters the hapless Yamada family. They want you dead. You want to bite. The battle is on.

Quirky as it sounds, Mister Mosquito is a Japanese video game released by ZOOM Inc. in 2001. Unlike U.S. video games that depict  post-apocalyptic journeys or commando attacks, Mister Mosquito allows you to experience the hardship of a mosquito’s life.

“In Japanese video games, there are craftsmanship and culture that you don’t see in other countries,” said John Davis, co-founder of BitSummit, an annual Kyoto indie game festival. “Japan never shies away from having anime, strong female protagonists or other types of subjects in games. There has never been a cookie-cutter approach to game semantics.” Continue reading A mosquito can become a video game hero in Japan

New cyberattacks such as cryptojacking make past risks kids’ stuff

By Xieyang Jessica Qiao
Medill Reports

Blockchain, AI, IoT and a storm of new technologies are leading to greater operational efficiency and consumer opportunities, while triggering an increasing range of cyberattacks.

In the age of digital transformation, the best defense for users is to understand past breaches in order to maintain constant vigilance for future threats.

AI applications have made inroads in robotic process automation that allows users in all professions to extract key metadata from their text, including entities, relations, concepts and sentiments. This helps lawyers run a smarter practice, for instance.

“Process automation can extract basic entities from your contracts’ metadata across different repositories and move that metadata into a contract life cycle management system,” said Andrew Pery, consultant of ABBYY, a software company that offers AI-based solutions. “So you have a single point of resources from which you can manage the contract life cycle.”

More advanced instances of process automation focus on cognitive analytics. By using the neural network, natural language processing and semantic analysis, AI extracts meaning from legal documents and may even predict the outcome of a court case.

While high technology generates excited chatter with its wide-ranging applications, it also creates new security incidents that have become increasingly complex. Recent years saw the growth of malware attacks targeting AI-powered and IoT devices.

“Everything that is connected to the internet is potentially susceptible to data breaches, and getting attached to the internet can become in essence a risk factor,” said Tomas Suros, chief solutions architect of AbacusNext, a software and private cloud services provider. “We’ve seen attacks specific to those AI-powered or IoT devices. Malware may propagate through Alexa, Siri or anything that can be used to automate activities.”

Suros said 60 percent of small- and medium-sized businesses had been infected or had a data breach at one point. Within six months, 60 percent of them went out of business.

“The scope of malware attacks is increasing,” Suros said. “The damage to your business reputation, your inability to restore and the cost associated with recovery are devastating.”

While the sophistication of cyber crimes increases, its paradigm also shifts. A hacker breaks into your network to steal information or creates a virus to corrupt your network are now “ancient” models of cyberattacks. The new culprit is no longer smash-and-dash.

“Let’s say somebody inadvertently clicks on a link in an email,” Suros said. “The malware attack may not happen immediately. Instead, a bot is dropped on your network. It does password sniffing and siphons off that information in a way that is not immediately apparent. But the bot can penetrate your network and continue to do damage.”

There is also a nefarious nature to the way these innovative attacks are initiated, as they spike immediately before and after Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks.

“The goal is to find you in a weak moment when you’re busy or distracted and all it takes is one weak point in your network to initiate a deadly infection,” Suros said.

One type of malware is Trojan, which purports to be a legitimate software such as a browser or an add-on. When you install the software, however, Trojan drops malware on your system.

“After the infection starts, Trojan can identify an encrypted network drive even a couple of layers deep,” Suros said. “If you have data drives that create backups, Trojan can come in to create an infection and find those drives. Before initiating the attack, it actually has a map. This allows Trojan to hide its traps and potentially remove your ability to restore your backups of that data.”

Ransomware, a subset of malware programmed to encrypt data and block access to the computer network until money is paid, ramped up last year and is likely to rise even more in 2019.

“It comes in many shapes and sizes,” Suros said. “One of the newer variants is described as artisanal, meaning it’s designed to know its targets, what systems they’re using, and then deploy itself in ways that fool individuals by giving them information that seems familiar.”

Samsam, the ransomware used in targeted attacks, is responsible for the 2018 Atlanta cyberattack when one-third of the 424 software programs used by the city were thrown offline or partially disabled.

“Samsam doesn’t immediately start an attack,” Suros said. “It starts a scheme by recognizing the system and looking for vulnerabilities – the shortest path to a disruptive attack. It may install a crypto miner or a keystroke logger, which keeps records of every keystroke and sends them off as a file. People can deconstruct that and find your password.”

Then there’s cryptojacking – an emerging form of ransomware that may hide on your network to gain unauthorized use of your computer to mine cryptocurrency.

“It’s not encrypting your data or preventing you from using the system,” Suros said. “But it uses your resources, your central processing unit (CPU) cycles, your storage and your internet to create cryptocurrencies and send that to someone else who collects them.”

While cryptojacking malware doesn’t take all your data, it steals your resources, slows down your system and limits your security shields.

Last year also saw an upward trend in spear phishing and whaling attacks. While whaling attack is a more specific type of spear phishing that targets high-level executives, both are social engineering attacks that use psychological manipulation to trick users into revealing sensitive information.

“Spear phishing can identify your organization,” Suros said. “It may appear to come from HR, requesting you to update your password. You may receive an email from the IT department, asking you to do something and you will probably do it- thinking that the cause is to improve your technology and security.”

Suros said attacks cost businesses more than $75 billion per year- and it’s not just ransom that is paid. If individuals refuse to pay ransoms, they no longer have access to their servers or workstations.

“They are out of business until they can restore and recover,” Suros said. “There are 1.5 million phishing sites being created each month. This has become an industry and it will continue to grow this year.”

Photo at top: Recent years saw an increasing amount of advanced cyberattacks worldwide. (Miria Grunick/Flickr)

Most trendy 2018 technologies unveiled in Chicago and beyond

By Xieyang Jessica Qiao
Medill Reports

Today may be the slowest day you’re ever going to have during the rest of your life. The pace of change tomorrow will be faster than the pace today.

Chicago’s burgeoning VC opportunities and tech scene

An entrepreneurial spirit, fueled by investors who bet big on the city, is driving Chicago’s tech startup scene. According to the 2018 Chicago VC Ecosystem report, the city continues to outperform other U.S. venture ecosystems – including Silicon Valley – in terms of median multiple on invested capital (MOIC).

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Riding with SLAM Magazine at NBA All-Star weekend

By Andrew Donlan and John Alfes
Medill Reports

South Tryon Street buzzed on a summery, mid-February afternoon in Charlotte, as basketball fans from around the country swarmed a Sprinter van enveloped in vibrant magazine covers at the epicenter of the basketball universe — NBA All-Star weekend.

The van was placed strategically near Charlotte’s Mint Museum, which was paying homage to Nike’s Jordan brand in an atrium  exhibit of larger-than-life graphics. The basketball staple has prevailed sans uncertainty for more than three decades. Outside, another basketball brand — the iconic SLAM Magazine — put new methods of doing business to the test, led by ambitious workers determined to propel the publication forward in its third decade, too. Continue reading

True/False Film Festival welcomes spring with annual March march

By Ankur Singh
Medill Reports

True/False is one of the largest documentary film festivals in the United States.

Every year documentary filmmakers and audiences from all over the world arrive in Columbia, Missouri, for four days of documentary screenings and events.

Several notable films screened at the festival include Knock Down the House, which follows several women as they run for Congress in the 2018 election, including New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, who won her race.

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