McDonald’s Ditches IBM AI Drive-Thru Experiment Amidst Viral Mishaps

The fast-food industry is going through some major changes as it looks to leverage the artificial intelligence boom to improve its ordering and processing systems. Now, McDonald’s might be taking the next step. 

McDonald’s and AI

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Artificial intelligence isn’t just a tool for tech companies. The fast-food industry is testing it out too, with the world’s most famous fast-food chain already touting it as the “future” of their restaurant experience.

IBM Partnership

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McDonald’s has spent three years testing out AI technology in drive-thrus across the country, as part of a deal with multinational tech company IBM. The pair have spent this time experimenting with how AI can be used to reduce costs and streamline the drive-thru process.

100 Restaurants Partook

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During this period more than 100 restaurants in the US featured some element of automated AI technology as part of their processes, usually involving an AI voice that responded to and processed customer orders.

The Partnership is Ending

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Now, McDonald’s is winding down its operations with IBM which began in 2021. But it isn’t because the program wasn’t successful, according to the company.

“Part of Our Restaurants’ Future”

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“Our work with IBM has given us the confidence that a voice ordering solution for drive-thru will be part of our restaurants’ future,” a company statement confirmed on Monday. 

Finding a Solution by the End of the Year

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It is likely the fast-food monolith will continue to “explore voice ordering solutions more broadly,” and pursue further analysis that will help the company to “make an informed decision on a future voice ordering solution by the end of the year.”

Ending July 26

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McDonald’s has not given any exact reasons for why the partnership has ended, but it has confirmed that IBM operations will be completely shut down across all locations by July 26.

Mix-Ups and Mistakes

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Some suspect that the discontinuation may have something to do with a series of mix-ups and mistakes that went viral after disgruntled McD’s customers shared their experiences with the drive-thru AI.

Adding Unwanted Items

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More videos gave examples of McDonald’s AI systems bungling simple orders by adding unwanted and unnecessary items that did not make sense with the orders, such as providing ketchup packets for an ice cream sundae.  

Viral Videos Circulating

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One video circulated online showed the order-processing machine adding hundreds of dollars worth of chicken nuggets to a customer’s order.

Some Obstacles in the Way

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Unnamed sources in the AI industry told CNBC that there were still some technological obstacles that McDonald’s would have to iron out before rolling out a nationwide automated system.

Order Accuracy Questioned

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These were mainly related to order accuracy, which could be affected by different accents and dialects that the system had trouble deciphering.

IBM Responds

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While neither McDonald’s nor IBM responded to questions concerning these obstacles, IBM did comment on the performance of the technology over, saying: “This technology is proven to have some of the most comprehensive capabilities in the industry, fast and accurate in some of the most demanding conditions.”

IBM and McDonald’s Still Together

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Despite the end of the program, McDonald’s has confirmed that it will continue to work with IBM on a range of related projects, and will use IBM products as part of the global McDonald’s system.

Google Cloud Partnership

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In December last year, a multi-year partnership was also announced with Google Cloud.  Alphabet Inc. will use “generative AI, cloud, and edge computing tools to improve [McDonald’s] iconic dining experience for their employees and their customers,” according to Alphabet Inc. CEO Sundar Pichai.

AI On the Horizon?

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While there is no guarantee we’ll be speaking to AI drive-thru attendants at McDonald’s franchises in the next year, it may not be far off.

Other Chains Follow

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It might not just be the golden arches where we find the influences of AI automation in fast food services. Plenty of competing fast-food changes have begun the foray into automation too.

Jumping on the AI Train

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Chains like Wendy’s, White Castle, Popeyes, Arby’s, Panera, Hardee’s, Carl’s Jr., and more are now exploring the potential of AI automation to different degrees, with the hopes of reducing costs and maximizing speed and efficiency.

Wendy’s FreshAI

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Wendy’s has paired with Google Cloud, creating their own signature in-restaurant chatbot named “Wendy’s FreshAI.” White Castle and Soundhound AI have also launched a partnership to implement AI voice ordering in their restaurants by the end of the year.

In the UK

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It isn’t limited to the US either. Popeyes UK announced its first AI-powered drive-through service in May, following a successful pilot program.

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