Your Days Of Speaking To Humans At A Drive-Thru Might Be Numbered

There's a McDonald's in a Chicago suburb that's just a little different from the rest. Drive up, and you'll find out that the person taking your order, is in fact, not a person at all, but a computer. We all knew this was coming. I've got an Amazon Echo in the other room and I tell it to do things all the time. "Alexa, play fart noises!" It then misunderstands my command and responds by telling me where GameStop stock prices are at. The future's looking bright.

CNN reports that fast food chains are quietly ramping up their investments in technical upgrades like artificial intelligence. They had already been doing so pre-pandemic, but the need now is more urgent, as demand has grown so high for drive-thrus to be more efficient. Companies are now experimenting with AI assistants, automated ordering and payment processes, smart menu boards, and payments that are tied to facial recognition (yikes!).

"Technology is changing the experience, and I think it got thrust into hyper-overdrive by the pandemic," said Lisa van Kesteren, CEO and founder of SeeLevel HX, a company that has been analyzing fast-food restaurants' responses to COVID-19.

Some of the technology McDonald's has been testing includes artificial intelligence systems that scan license plates, with customer permission, to predict what they might order. Mobile orders can also be picked up at the drive-thru window. Chains like White Castle, not quite so large as McDonald's, are also experimenting with what AI can do for them.

In November, White Castle began testing its own automated ordering system at a location in Merrillville, Indiana, the same restaurant that already uses a robot burger flipper. In the future, the company plans to use the AI to consider the weather and the time of day, and also employ an opt-in license plate recognition software to pull up a customer's order history.

Then there's the facial recognition thing: Fair Oaks Burger in Altadena, California, is using a facial recognition system that allows customers to pay without a card or cash in the drive-thru. Users sign up in advance with a credit card and a selfie; after they order they say that they want to use PopPay (the face-recognition payment processing), at which point a camera snaps their photo and confirms their identity, then money is charged to their card. I have a feeling there's going to be a lot of objections to this, but as of now, this system is active in restaurants and stores in Pasadena and West Los Angeles.

There's a lot to consider here, and it's definitely some worthwhile Monday reading. Make sure you check out the article—maybe after reading it, you'll be able to tell me whether I should embrace this wave of innovation or simply feel creeped out by it.