McDonald's drive-thru robot made a mistake. Then it all got ridiculous

AI seems to solve so much. But not, perhaps, some basic drive-thru problems.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer
Yellow McDonald's sign
photo by Mike Kemp/In Pictures via Getty Images

It's not been a wonderful few weeks for AI.

Both Google and Microsoft presented their new AI-powered chatterboxes and both seemed to make fundamental mistakes.

Yes, in the launch presentations.

Then Microsoft's Bing with ChatGPT took on less of a charming personality and more of a sociopathic affect.

Also: ChatGPT: What The New York Times and others are getting terribly wrong about it

Perhaps, then, AI needs a little more work.

Real humans knew this already. When they talk to Alexa or Siri, they may not have been understood. Or, indeed, as happens to me with Siri all the time, the AI completely misconstrues one's entire request.

Hey, Siri, play me some Van Der Graaf Generator.

OK, here's Are You Ready by D-Generation X.

When I first saw that McDonald's was embracing AI like a long-lost potential profit center, I wasn't entirely uplifted. The experience was devoid of, well, brand experience, instead being precisely the sort of dystopian that ruins one's digestive tract.

Also: Just how big is this new generative AI? Think internet-level disruption

It seems, though, that McDonald's has continued with the experiment, with occasionally pained results.

TikTok-er Ren Adams couldn't help but be moved by the robot's own moves at the McDonald's drive-thru. In a pulsatingly witty video, she explained that the robot's ears weren't as finely tuned as they might have been.

All Adams wanted for breakfast was hash browns, sweet tea and a Coke.

Of course you're tempted to criticize that order, but please don't. Whatever gets people moving in the morning isn't our concern today.

All seemed fine until, at a second drive-thru lane, another car pulled up. Adams' AI helper seems to have overheard that order and added it to Adams'.

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Adams tried to make the robot see sense. Or, rather hear it. Instead, the robot removed the errant Diet Coke and replaced it with, oh, nine sweet teas instead of one.

Which suggests something of a problem. When your robot drive-thru employee makes a mistake, to whom can you complain? Complaining to the robot seems to create an extra layer of complication and the potential for even greater misunderstanding.

Adams, indeed, isn't alone.

Here's Caitlyn Sykora (not) ordering $254 of McNuggets meals. And here's Madilynn Cameron wanting a large cup of water and a cup of ice cream and discovering butter is included. She seems to have given up.

Of course this is all amusing. And of course it might remind many of every single conversation they've had with a robot switchboard when they're desperate to talk to an actual human being.

You'll tell me robot ordering will get better. I'll be tempted to tell you: "How long have robot switchboards being annoying? Oh look, they still are."

This hasn't interrupted their march toward inevitability.

McDonald's itself admits the robot-only restaurant is but a CFO's dream.

Currently, it's far too expensive to implement and if you're not so good at fixing ice-cream machines, how good will you be at maintaining thousands of robot order-takers?

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