Fast-food giant Wendy's will use AI to try and take a quantum leap in customer service, unveiling a new chatbot set to automate drive-thru service. The bot, trained on Google's natural-language software, comprehends the diverse ways that customers order off the menu.

It's set to roll out in as a pilot program at a single Columbus, Ohio restaurant next month. Wendy's says its goal is to streamline the ordering process and mitigate lengthy drive-thru queues to retain customers. Wendy's CEO Todd Penegor has high hopes, telling The Wall Street Journal that the chatbot's conversational prowess is such that "you won’t know you’re talking to anybody but an employee."

Working with Google since 2021, Wendy’s said that it has invested heavily in data analytics, machine learning, and cloud tools. The actual expenditure remains undisclosed. The partnership has birthed a generative AI application resting atop Google’s large language model (LLM)—an algorithmic powerhouse loaded with words, phrases, and colloquialisms tailored to mirror human speech.

a robot taking orders in front of a restaurant. Image created by Decrypt using AI (Stable Diffusion)
A robot taking orders in front of a restaurant. Image created by Decrypt using AI (Stable Diffusion)

However, replicating human interactions isn't child's play. Thomas Kurian, CEO of Google Cloud, acknowledged the challenges in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, saying, "It’s a very technical problem.”

This high-tech chatbot isn't a mere order-taker, either. It's programmed to upsell too, suggesting larger sizes, Frosties, or daily specials. Once an order is placed, it appears on-screen for human (at least for now) line cooks, who then prepare the meals to be handed off to drivers by a staff member (also human, also for now).

Kevin Vasconi, Wendy’s Chief Information Officer, exuded confidence in the results of recent test runs, stating that the bot is "at least as good as our best customer service representative, and it's probably on average better." The pilot aims to convince franchisees of the technology's merit in boosting service speed and consistency.

Interestingly, Wendy's drive-thru orders have skyrocketed, from 30% of all its orders before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to 80% today. The objective, Penegor added, is to expedite the drive-thru process and increase sales with every minute saved.

Such advancements in AI technology have sparked concerns among Americans, however. The fear of AI taking their jobs is palpable, and this trial from Wendy’s serves as a stark reminder of that possibility. However, Penegor assures that the chatbot's deployment isn't an attempt to replace human workers.


AI fear grows

Wendy’s is just one of the many businesses exploring the use of AI to increase their efficiency—and reduce operational costs. The rapid rise of AI across various sectors could potentially disrupt job markets.

Many experts in the field are raising their voices in an effort to prevent the worst-case scenario: a “FOOM” episode (short for "Fast Onset of Overwhelming Mastery”), in which an AI can replace and outpace humans in most tasks—like taking restaurant orders—and ultimately disrupt the way that society functions.

And it’s not just something that bothers AI experts and influencers. A recent study by Pew Research revealed that a significant amount of US workers are worried about the impact that AI will have on their jobs.

In March, Wendy's unveiled a restructuring plan aimed at company-wide sales growth and cost-cutting. The chatbot isn't related to these efforts, the company said. As generative AI market spending is expected to reach $42.6 billion by year's end, according to markets firm PitchBook, it appears that Wendy's is making a strategic move to remain ahead of the curve.

As the dawn of the AI era ushers in an age of automation and efficiency, keep your eyes peeled for that drive-thru chatbot the next time you're craving a late-night burger. The future of fast food is here, and it's serving up orders with a side of cutting-edge tech.

Just remember: even though an AI chatbot may whip up a perfect Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger order, don't ask it for life advice. It's still working on that feature.

Interested in learning more about AI? Check out our latest Decrypt U course, “Getting Started with AI.” It covers everything from the history of AI to machine learning, ChatGPT, and ChainGPT. Find out more here.


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