Software

I just watched McDonald’s new AI drive-thru and I’ve lost my appetite


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She’s only following orders.


Screenshot by ZDNet

I wanted it to be clever.

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I wanted it to be surprising, enticing, well, at least a little bit human.

After all, AI companies are always telling us how much better than the human equivalent their creations truly are.

So when McDonald’s revealed it was testing the idea of replacing humans at the drive-thru with robots, I was filled with cautious optimism.

Would customers be greeted with a surprisingly chirpy voice, redolent of a young person who really enjoys high school?

Sadly, I haven’t been near Chicago lately and that’s where the burger chain is testing this as yet imperfect system — McDonald’s confesses the robot only grasps your order 85% of the time.

But then a TikToker called @soupmaster2000 documented her experience at the new AI drive-thru.

“Welcome to McDonald’s,” began exactly the same female robot voice you’ve heard every time you’ve tried to get through to a customer service operative at every internet provider/cellphone carrier/just about every business these days.

The McDonald’s robot continues: “We’re currently serving a limited menu, so please review the menu before ordering.”

There’s little more welcoming than being greeted by an inhuman voice telling you that the thing you want to order may not actually be offered today.

But goodness, this is just an experiment, isn’t it? Surely the robot is programmed to offer a tinge of wit, no?

No.

The voice is exactly the same robot voice you’ve heard in every disturbing sci-fi movie. It’s as if Siri’s daughter has just got her first job.

Soupmaster orders two medium Oreo McFlurries. The response: “Alright.” In a voice that suggests you may shortly be approached by two members of the secret police.

The robot then asks if the customer wants anything else and invites the customer to “please full forward,” because no mere human would know to do that.

Soupmaster described it as “the most dystopian thing I have ever seen in the 27 years of my life.”

It’s hard to disagree. One hopes that, over time, the voices of robots will become more palatable. Perhaps, one day, you’ll be able to order from BTS or SZA.

There has been, though, a further little twist. McDonald’s is now being sued for allegedly recording voiceprint details of its customers at the robot drive-thru. The lawsuit claims that McDonald’s makes the recordings “to be able to correctly interpret customer orders and identify repeat customers to provide a tailored experience.”

McDonald’s isn’t, of course, the only fast-food chain that’s drifting toward the idea of personalizing offers for customers. Its purchases of Dynamic Yield and Aprente show that this is very much the idea.

Illinois, however, is one of 12 that requires both parties to consent to a recording of a voice conversation and the lawsuit claims there’s no warning to customers that recordings are occurring.

McDonald’s hasn’t commented, but it’s an awkward aftertaste to the company’s vision of the future.

Currently, many McDonald’s franchisees complain they can’t find staff. Some are even reluctant to re-open their restaurants for indoor dining, as they feel they’re doing just fine with drive-thru and delivery.

But if your local McDonald’s becomes one large modern vending machine, does that inspire love for the brand?

Perhaps the future won’t be about love at all.

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