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!