Dark Future at the Drive-Thru?

Dark Future at the Drive-Thru?

The future has finally come for our fast food! Next month, the venerable burger chain Wendy’s will bring the power of AI to what I imagine to be one of the most trying of workplaces: the drive-thru. At a trial location, a Google Cloud AI-based host will speak with customers and take their orders, all while rolling with the idiosyncrasies of human speech and meaning. (For example, not getting confused when a human asks for a milkshake, rather than using the trademarked term “Frosty.”). The corporate overlords behind the idea see it as the solution to rampant labour shortages. And they are definitely excited.

“This ‘creates a huge opportunity for us to deliver a truly differentiated, faster and frictionless experience for our customers,’ Chief Executive Officer Todd Penegor said in a statement. […]

Opinions on what AI will mean for workers and companies vary greatly, from massive disruption to marginal change. In the view of Presto Automation, which offers an AI ordering platform for restaurants, the technology will shake up the industry.

‘I don’t think in three years, there’s going to be a drive-thru having a human take your orders,’ Krishna Gupta, Presto’s chairman and interim chief executive officer, told Bloomberg Television last week.

Wendy’s, which is debuting its chatbot at a company-owned store near Columbus, Ohio, is trying to reduce miscommunication and mistakes by automating the process, it said. The company declined to comment on how the technology might reduce the need for employees, though it said the system should help streamline the ordering process so staff can focus on serving food quickly.”

Cool though this is, I’m frankly a bit tired of the utopianism that folks leveraging AI in weird places keep going trotting out. The wilfully vague claim that having an AI on the drive-thru will “reduce the need for employees” is not only ominous-sounding, but it also doesn’t address why the employees—these corporate overlords’ fellow humans—aren’t there. Like Canada, the USA is being hit hard by grim economic realities. People aren’t signing up to work in places like the Wendy’s drive-thru for a number of reasons, including the fact they’re not getting paid fairly for their contributions.

In my utopian future, I’d much rather AI take the pressure off humans who can then be paid living wages for valuable work or, heck, who can devote their lives to art or their own small businesses thanks to a universal basic income! The lack of concern for workers in the Wendy’s equation really tips the corporation’s hand: save operating money by cutting labour, livelihoods of real humans be damned. As the concept of centaur chess has shown us, uniting human intuition and AI processing power can create a powerful alliance greater than the sum of its parts. Instead of erasing the human, Wendy’s—and other corporations pinning their fiscal hopes on AI—might do well to emphasize us… in bold type!

New Antibiotic Breakthrough: A Prescription for Weeds


With the passing of Victoria Day, we in southern Ontario re now safely in the “no frost” zone of the calendar. I am loving all the flowers and happy green leaves filling the gardens and roadsides I pass daily. Equally happy, though considerably more distressing to see, are the invasive species trying to edge out all those lovely native plants—including the dastardly dog-strangling vine, and garlic mustard. (Unfortunately, not the tasty kind that we make!) At the moment, all we can do to battle these two invaders is personally pull each of them out, roots and all, seal them in plastic, and throw them in the garbage. Which is pretty effortful, and sets a high bar for effectively eliminating them.

But a team of researchers from Australia (a country that knows a thing or two about invasive species) may have great news for us. They’ve developed a brand new type of weed killer—incredibly, based on an antibiotic that was developed for tuberculosis! The molecule failed out of the lab but showed promise for this new, but chemically similar, application. Its attack-the-bad-guys capability was tweaked to hone in on two of Australia’s most problematic weeds, annual ryegrass and wild radish. The formulation has proven effective at the targeted assassination of these two weeds. Scientists are now excited about what this development means for agriculture, in an age when food resources are ever more precious, and weeds are developing greater resistance to standard herbicides.

Researchers at the [University of Adelaide] Herbicide and Antibiotic Innovation Lab discovered there were similarities between bacterial superbugs and weeds at a molecular level.

They exploited these similarities and, by chemically modifying the structure of a failed antibiotic, they were able to block the production of amino acid lysine, which is essential for weed growth. […]

‘The short-cut strategy saves valuable time and resources, and therefore could expedite the commercialisation of much needed new herbicides,’ said [lead researcher Dr Tatiana] Soares da Costa.

‘It’s also important to note that using failed antibiotics won’t drive antibiotic resistance because the herbicidal molecules we discovered don’t kill bacteria. They specifically target weeds, with no effects on human cells,’ she said.”

The researchers estimate that weeding costs the Australian agriculture industry $5 billion AUD annually. What massive savings could be anticipated if the vast majority of those weeds… simply never exist! Of course, saving money is king here, but thankfully the environment comes out ahead too. Isn’t it great when we can turn our ingenuity towards supporting our planet, instead of draining it? I’m looking forward to this technology being adapted to other weeds in other countries. Next time I drive past those miserable dog-strangling vines, I’m going to enjoy yelling out the window that their days are numbered!


Compassionate Cafe Brings Refreshment to War Zone

As the war in Ukraine rages on, we who don’t live there watch each terrible development from afar, while experiencing the immense privilege that that distance affords us. It’s easy to max out on the awful things that humans can inflict on other humans, and take refuge in our friends, families, media, hobbies, and media, all far away from the bloodshed. While that impulse is very human, it’s just as human (as Mr. Rogers once put it so eloquently!) to try to help.

That’s what Fuminori Tsuchiko has done, in his own unique way. The 75-year-old Japanese man has opened a cafe in the Ukrainian city of Kharkhiv. There, he gives out free food to residents trying to snatch a bit of normalcy amid the upheaval. The snacks and meals he serves are nourishing not just because of the usual calories and vitamins, but, as the food is all sourced by donation, it represents the goodwill of donors around the world!

“For months, he said, he lived in a metro station and worked as a volunteer distributing food in the subway.[…]

‘June, July, August, September, October, November, December—(for) seven months I stayed in the metro, underground, sleeping or eating, and together (with) many, many Ukrainian people,’ Tsuchiko said.

FuMi Caffe serves about 500 people a day, he said.

Tsuchiko said he had been visiting Ukraine as a tourist in February 2022, when the Japanese embassy urged him to leave as Russia prepared to invade. He went to the Polish capital Warsaw but said he returned two months later.”

The amount of courage it takes to remain in a war zone to help others when your own country tries to get you to leave is staggering. But I can only imagine the extra bravery required if you’re a senior!  And Mr. Tsuchiko doesn’t seem to be planning on leaving, as long as he’s needed. While I’m glad he’s there, I fervently hope that the war in Ukraine ends as soon as possible, for everyone involved—including the kind-hearted volunteer doing his bit supporting a shattered community, by invoking the comforting power of food.

Cracking A Coronation Cold One: Vintage Beer is a Blast From The Past

Way out here in the colonies, it’ll take a significant effort to show up for the biggest event in the Commonwealth in 70 years—the coronation of King Charles III. The American in me looks askance at the whole thing, but the real deciding factor is having to get up in the middle of the night in order to catch the festivities on the, ahem, “telly.” I may find a different way of celebrating, perhaps by whipping up a Coronation Quiche; the newly minted monarch’s official dish. (Or maybe 1953’s viral recipe, his mother Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation Chicken!)

What I definitely won’t be consuming is another crown-related comestible, which was uncovered in the Greene King brewery cellar in southeastern England 2011 and will be auctioned off this week: beer brewed for the coronation of Edward VII, 86 years ago. Because of convoluted reasons both personal and professional, Edward VIII abdicated the throne of the United Kingdom in the window after he acceded and before his coronation could actually happen—thus relegating both himself and the beer brewed in his honour to a far more boring fate. Until now!

“‘This really would have been a fantastic beer in its day,’ Greene King’s then-head brewer John Bexon said in 2012. ‘It was 12% when it was brewed so is quite strong and has kept really well. The rich fruit flavor still stands out.’

Whoever ends up buying the beer will have to take Bexon’s word for it: Greene King said that the brew is ‘no longer drinkable,’ and the bottles are being sold purely as collector’s items. According to The Telegraph, Greene King does have an updated version of Coronation Ale, which has been brewed for King Charles’ crowning next month; it will be available to buy in pubs and online.”

Greene King’s 2023 brew sounds positively refreshing, with hints of tropical fruit and citrus, and a (much!) lighter ABV of 4%. It’s too bad buyers of the 1937 version are steered away from opening their bottles—wouldn’t that be a fascinating fantasy flight? After a hearty sleep-in on Saturday, I may lift a quiche-accompanying glass to Charles… Supporting the monarchy aside, everyone deserves a cheer when they land a new job!


Pitcher Plants Plan a Menu


Spring has sprung in our neck of the woods. Plants of all kinds are budding, blooming, and otherwise making their presence known. This period of explosive growth still surprises me every year, and reminds me that—much like humans—plants need food to fuel themselves too! And, as a new study has shown this week, some plants may be as picky as humans about the food they consume, and may also modify their own “behaviour” to score living snacks that have the nutrients they need most.

A team of French researchers studied North American Sarracenia pitcher plants under lab conditions. These notorious carnivorous plants grow slippery sets of leaves that look like a delicious trumpet-shaped flower, fooling unsuspecting insects into coming in for a snack. The poor suckers then fall into a pool of enzymes at the bottom of the “flower” and are slowly digested by the plant. It’s long been established that different types of Sarracenia trap different kinds of insects—pollinators vs. ants, for example. But this study posits an unexpected way Sarracenia may be luring bugs to their watery doom—highly tailored scents, or volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

The team tested four different kinds of Sarracenias; two naturally occuring, and two human-crafted hybrids.

“The study team placed each plant in an airtight bag and pumped purified air through it. The odor-causing molecules produced by the plants were trapped on filters for the researchers to analyze and identify. The team found that the different pitcher plant species each produced their own unique bouquet of VOCs. […]

The researchers then compared the VOCs produced by each plant with the types of insects it caught. The species that produced more floral scents trapped more bees, moths and other flying insects; pitchers that produced more fatty acids caught more ants. These results held up even when the researchers took into account the way that the pitchers’ size and shape might limit what sorts of insects they could easily trap.”
The authors acknowledge this is early days yet; a study like this shows a strong correlation and more work is required to establish causation. But the possibility that Sarracenia may be “ordering” what they crave off the local bug menu via the powerful method of scent is pretty cool! It definitely shortens the gap between us and other life with whom we share this delicate planet. If, in the long run, all this proves is the need for more human empathy for our ecosystem… Well, I’ll take that too!