Health and Science

Scientists explore using bacteria as building blocks for alternative fuels

Researchers at Northwestern University’s Jewett Lab use E. coli and other strains to innovate new renewable compounds

By Valerie Nikolas
Medill Reports

At Northwestern University’s Jewett Lab in the Center for Synthetic Biology, researchers aim to create sustainable chemicals and materials out of existing organic compounds. Using cell-free metabolic engineering, they isolate the structural components from existing organisms, such as E. coli, and manipulate them to create new compounds. These types of reactions are called “cell-free” because they occur outside the confines of a cell.

“We focus on E. coli because it is super well-studied,” said Ashty Karim, research fellow and assistant scientific director at the Jewett Lab. “We know a lot about how it functions and how to manipulate it to do our engineering objectives.”

The lab’s engineering objectives are to create sustainable and renewable chemicals that can be used for biofuels and in manufacturing.

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Used as the new black: Environmentally conscious shoppers are choosing thrift stores

By Karleigh Stone
Medill Reports

Rapidly changing fashion trends can be harmful to the environment, according to a recent analysis by a U.N. consortium. In what’s known as “fast fashion,” retailers constantly flip the floor stock to match popular styles. That has led to production facilities creating more clothing than ever before.

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Double amputee discovers new abilities through contemporary dance

By Josephine Chu
Medill Reports

Through contemporary dance, Kris Lenzo shows the world that disabled people are no different from other dancers.

Lenzo lost both legs in a work accident nearly 40 years ago but has stayed active since his injury. He played wheelchair basketball for years before transitioning to contemporary dance at Momenta Dance Company in Oak Park, Ill., in 2003. Lenzo performs in several group pieces, solo routines and partner dances throughout the year.

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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

Chicago group makes climbing accessible

By Melissa Hovanes
Medill Reports

At age 15, Clarinda Valentine’s life was forever altered. “A guy came in the YMCA shooting and I got the bullet in the back,” said Valentine. “That’s kind of been my life since then. I was a sophomore in high school at the time.”

Forty-nine years later, at age 64, Valentine spends her Wednesday evenings climbing a 50-foot rope at Brooklyn Boulders in Chicago’s West Loop neighborhood. She’s been climbing for more than three years with Adaptive Climbing Group Chicago. “I see the benefit in my ability… I’m physically stronger, and more fit,” said Valentine. “It makes my life easier when transferring from the wheelchair.”

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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)

Taking command of cyber risks: Tips and tools you can use now

A guide to keeping your digital information exactly that: yours

By Tyler Sonnemaker
Medill Reports

Has your personal information leaked in a data breach? (Not sure? Use this tool to find out). How about passwords — still using “password” or “123456” for everything? Do you want to keep prying eyes away from health records, personal finances or information about your children?

If you answered yes to any of the above questions and want to better protect yourself online, this guide is for you. If you’re still wondering why you should care about cybersecurity or privacy, learn how tracking and hacking can impact even average internet users. Continue reading

Plans for former coal plant irk Pilsen activists

By Lauren Robinson
Medill Reports

This story has been revised to reflect the status of Hilco’s relationship to the former Fisk site.

Seven years after Pilsen residents celebrated the closure of the Fisk coal plant, activists are gearing up for a new campaign: to demand input in the site’s redevelopment and oppose the continued operation of diesel-fired “peaker” plants.

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Water contamination threat continues for the Navajo Nation

By Lily Qi and Lu Zhao
Medill Reports

Uranium, arsenic, lead … have you ever thought about these metals contaminating the water you use and drink every day? Once they reach a certain level, these elements can cause illness and even endanger your life. This is what has been happening in the Navajo Nation with its centuries old history and culture.

Spread across portions of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, the Navajo Nation possesses the largest land among Indigenous tribes. The territory encompasses spectacular scenery across vast areas but that makes it harder to test and address the water contamination problem on this land.

How severe is the contamination? Earlier this month, we took a reporting trip to the Navajo Nation to observe and inquire. Listen to the podcast and see what we found out about the water there.

Podcast by Lily Qi and Lu Zhao/Medill

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