General Interest

59th Sakura Matsuri Japanese Street Festival celebrates D.C.’s cherry blossoms

By Stephanie Fox
Medill Reports

Slideshow: The 59th Annual Sakura Matsuri Japanese Street Festival. (Stephanie Fox)

A few blocks from the National Mall, families, friends, dogs and anime enthusiasts crowded through a gated entryway placed on Pennsylvania Avenue to experience the 59th Annual Sakura Matsuri Japanese Street Festival.

Some effortlessly used chopsticks to eat mango sticky rice on-the-go. Others sipped bubble tea, or stared admiringly at a newly-purchased bonsai tree while taking a selfie. Everyone enjoyed the company of a welcoming community while celebrating the significance of the U.S.-Japan relationship and the final day of Washington, D.C.’s three-week Cherry Blossom Festival. Continue reading

Guam residents demand change: “There is No Planet B”

Text and photos by Hannah Magnuson
Medill Reports

About 60 residents gathered at Paseo Stadium in Agana, Guam, on Saturday, April 13, in an act of solidarity with the island’s natural resources.

As Earth Month hit mid-swing, they carried homemade signs that said things like, “There is No Planet B” and “Certified Tree Hugger.” From local advocacy leaders to college students and schoolchildren, they assembled to participate in the second annual March to Protect Mother Earth.

The march came at a time when the U.S. territory is under considerable strain: forces including invasive species, coral bleaching and wildfires threaten the small Pacific island’s natural resources and wildlife while its consumption and population remain sky high.

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Life at a research lab in Israel’s Negev desert

By Alexis Shanes
Medill Reports

SDE BOKER, ISRAEL — Two hours south of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where political drama unraveled amid Tuesday’s Israeli elections, I finished my morning coffee and stepped out into the blinding desert sunshine.

I’m spending this month at the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research, which are part of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The main BGU campus is located in Be’er Sheva, the Negev desert’s largest city. But I’m at the BIDR outpost 45 minutes south, in Sde Boker, where I’m embedded with researchers tackling water stewardship in the Middle East. I’m reporting by observation and taking notes I’ll later use for Medill News Service stories.
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Lab optimizes performance and prevents injury for warriors, athletes and more

Medill News Service journalist Colleen Zewe is embedding this spring as a reporter with with sports medicine researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences Neuromuscular Research Lab as they enhance performance for warriors and athletes.

By Colleen Zewe
Medill Reports

At first glance, the University of Pittsburgh Neuromuscular Research Lab seems more like a gym than a laboratory. Treadmills, stationary bikes, weight racks and kettlebells all line the walls of the lab, which sits in a sports medicine hub of Pittsburgh. Just a few steps away, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Rooney Sports Complex welcomes the Steelers to practice and train.

But the Bod Pod, underwater treadmills, and an array of experiments hint that these workout machines aren’t used for regular exercise. Instead, they’re measuring warrior performance – the performance of military personnel. NMRL is also Pitt’s Warrior Human Performance Research Center. The researchers strive to optimize the performance of those who are quite literally human warriors: military personnel,  athletes and other active populations. Continue reading

How to ensure your electric vehicle is powered by renewable energy

By Brady Jones
Medill Reports

Driving an electric vehicle plays a critical role in reducing carbon dioxide emissions, but the impact of this reduction gets diminished if the electricity comes from fossil fuels. The sources of electricity used to power your car must be green too and several choices are available to make that happen.

It all comes down to this: how can you ensure that you are maximizing the amount of electricity that comes from renewable sources used to charge your vehicle?

The two highest contributors of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2016 were transportation and electricity production, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In Illinois, 40 percent of the state’s electricity is produced by coal and natural gas—only 7 percent is produced by wind and solar, reports the U.S. Department of Energy. Fortunately, some power companies offer green energy options for your power. And there are steps you can take to maximize the percentage of renewable sources for your electricity. How you do that depends first on where you live.
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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 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

Michigan Wolverines come up short in quest for B1G Tournament 3-Peat

By Seth Schlechter
Medill Reports

Michigan steamrolls Iowa and Minnesota before falling to rival in B1G Title Game

Prior to taking the floor each game, the Michigan Wolverines huddle at the end of the tunnel for a last-second pregame pep talk. One by one, each player takes a turn saying what he will contribute to the team that day.

Walk-ons such as C.J. Baird and Luke Wilson stressed bringing energy to the bench. They’d be bringing that same energy to the floor this weekend, as both played the closing minutes of Michigan’s first two wins of the B1G Tournament at the United Center in Chicago.

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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)

Q and A with Laura Polanco, candidate for District 99 school board in her hometown of Cicero

By Ankur Singh
Medill Reports

Laura Polanco, 34, is a parent who was born and raised in Cicero. She’s currently running for school board for Elementary School District 99 and hoping to advocate for other parents like her in the district where she attended school. She is one of four candidates running for three seats up for re-election on the board in the April 2 elections.

 Medill Reports: Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself?

Laura: Sure. My name is Laura Polanco. I’m a lifetime resident here in Cicero. I went through District 99, District 201 [high school], and I’m an alumni of Morton College. I was born here and I grew up here. I’m married and I currently have two kids. My oldest is currently at Columbus West (elementary) and that’s one of my biggest reasons that made me pursue [running for school board]. Continue reading