Public Affairs

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.

Continue reading

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

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

On Northwestern’s campus, men are addressing their role in sexual violence

By Chris Schulz
Medill Reports

The topic of sexual assault and misconduct is nothing new, but  conversations among men about the role they can play in prevention is. For generations, masculine sexual aggression has been dismissed as “boys will be boys” or locker room talk. Now that society is demanding accountability where sexual violence or misconduct occurs, new conversations and allegations are expanding communication and enforcement.

“The most salient issue is getting men to stop abstracting the issue, to stop thinking of sexual violence as something that happens around them rather than something they contribute to” said David Fishman. He is the president of the Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault group at Northwestern University. MARS provides training to fraternities on campus about masculine identity and the role it can play in sexual assault.

“The biggest challenge is getting each and every one of us, myself included, to recognize places that we contribute to a culture of violence.” Fishman said. 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)

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

For those who pushed for Illinois minimum wage increase, automation poses questions, challenges


By Dwight A. Weingarten
Medill Reports

The Illinois state minimum wage will rise to $9.25 an hour on Jan. 1, 2020, increasing for the first time in a decade, and to $15 an hour by 2025. But the struggle of low-wage workers and their political allies who fought for the increase face a seemingly steep obstacle—automation, robotics and kiosk services.

In the spring of 1964, civil rights activist Bob Moses spoke at Stanford University in an attempt to recruit students to join him in Mississippi to help register voters. Moses’ words about organizing and human rights hold true some 55 years later and will frame the struggle that achieved the $15 minimum wage in Illinois – click on Moses’ words quoted in this story to hear the original recording of the speech.

The Demonstration
“All the questions about automation, all the questions about our schools, all the questions about our cities—what kind of cities will we have?—all of these find their focus in the public eye in terms of some kind of civil rights demonstration or another.” Bob Moses 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.

Continue reading