McDonald's is trying something new. It may drive customers mad

Whenever a fast-food chain tries to inject more technology into its offering, there are always issues. In this case, 15% of the time, it seems.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

Ronald is a robot.

Screenshot by ZDNet

I know I should be happy.

I know I should be loving this idea as a sign of human progress.

Why, then, am I a little concerned?

Please forgive this apparently tangential meandering, but when you've been used to something being done a certain way, it's often hard to imagine a successful alternative.

Yet here we are -- or, more precisely, here are a lot of people in Chicago -- about to face one of the more severe inevitabilities of our modern world: McDonald's is removing humans from taking your order at the drive-thru, in favor of a machine.

I've always been filled with anticipation at how cheery a greeting I'll get when I ride up to the drive-thru speaker. Now, were I in Chicago, I may be greeted by one of Siri's distant cousins, artificial and allegedly intelligent.

This very fact, the very knowledge that it won't be some high schooler with a penchant for Aristotle, fills me with sadness.

Still, CNBC reports that the burger chain has installed these AI robots in 10 Chicago McDonald's so that it doesn't have to employ so many humans.

No, that's not exactly what McDonald's says, of course. The company insists it's just experimenting with technology from its acquisition of Apprente, whose alleged skill is creating AI to take voice orders.

I know that you've already enjoyed so many fine conversations via phone with artificially intelligent customer service beings that you'll be looking forward to repeating yourself three times before you get your Big Mac and fries.

McDonald's, though, would like you to know that its tests have thus far shown that the robots get orders right 85% of the time.

Which merely leaves 15% of customers kvetching that they got six McMuffins instead of six McNuggets.

There's hope for skeptics. McDonald's CEO Chris Kempczinski doesn't think this McAI -- pronounced Mackay (I just made the name and pronunciation up) -- will be instantly injected into all of his company's restaurants.

"There's a big leap from going to 10 restaurants in Chicago to 14,000 restaurants across the US, with an infinite number of promo permutations, menu permutations, dialect permutations, weather -- and on and on and on," he said.

This would be the stuff that, say, humans can grasp easily with a hangover and without thinking. (Kempczinski admitted that a current problem with the McAI is that human employees are desperate to butt in and help the poor, unintelligent robots.)

But no, we must show we're clever enough to make robots who can comprehend just like us.

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There are, of course, other kinks. McDonald's is currently in dispute with its franchisees over how payments for technology will be divided. Some franchisees are threatening to sue the company over what they see as an unfair division of charges.

One imagines, then, that if the McAI was ever unrolled across America there might be some hearty conversations about who will pay for it and how.

Currently, though, the chain is struggling to hire employees. An Illinois McDonald's recently got so desperate that it offered a free iPhone if a new recruit lasts six months.

Please get ready, then, for a steady stream of McKing about as your robot tries to decipher your very personal drive-thru needs.

Don't worry, these robots will be perfect in the end.

It's just that it may take them a long time -- and you a lot of patience -- for the McAIs to be the Real McCoys.

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