McDonald’s said it was trying to delight customers. Then the truth slipped away


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I want to believe.

I want to believe that technology makes the world a better place. Just.

I want to believe that we are all becoming more and more aware of the truths of the world.

And I want to believe that when companies say things, they really mean them.

That’s why I was so, so emotional when McDonald’s started experimenting with ordering robots at the drive-thru. Yes, it sounded like a perfectly awful experience, but I wanted to believe that over time, the robots would eventually pick up on our quirky individualistic accents and commands.

Not so long ago, McDonald’s announced that it was selling its McD Tech Labs – formerly known as Apprente – to IBM. The company said IBM had more core capabilities needed to extend robot drive-thru to everyone and, it was imagined, make everyone happier.

In making the sale, McDonald’s CEO Chris Kempczinski insisted that tests the company conducted in Chicago had revealed “substantial benefits” for both customers and employees.

I emit a short hosanna. Could this really be a case of technology improving everyone’s lot?

But then I came across a recent interview at JPMorgan’s 50th Annual Global Technology, Media and Communications Conference.

Here, IBM’s Senior Vice President of Global Markets, Rob Thomas, offered his insight to help McDonald’s become preeminent in ordering drive-thru robots.

He said McDonald’s had “kind of had trouble” ordering.

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“We thought, and we built a thesis around it, that we could use our natural language processing technology, which is very good at augmenting McDonalds’ technology, and we’re now starting to roll that out to many of their stores, eventually. all of their stores,” Thomas said.

Ah, so everyone is really going to have naturally linguistic robots? It should be interesting.

What was even more thrilling, however, was Thomas’ next thought: “And that’s a great application of technology, wage inflation, and quick-service restaurants.”

An application of wage inflation? Are you saying it’s not so much about improving the customer experience as it is about making pure, non-human money?

Ah, so that’s the real motivation? Fewer people want to work at McDonald’s for relatively little money, so lo and behold, technology meets quick-service restaurants and crushes wage inflation.

Thomas was on a roll (or a bun, perhaps) when he continued, “We can do all the steering wheel controls without requiring human intervention. Every once in a while something will hit the human, but it very much drives the economy to franchisees through the power of software, AI, and creative building.”

There’s nothing quite like the human being kicked around while standing, maybe all alone, making burgers all night.

I wanted to believe in technology bringing substantial benefits to everyone. Yet the painful reality seems to be that the substantial benefits accrue far more to franchisees than to, say, customers or employees.

So when you come across one of these robots and they don’t understand your more personal order, just remember that they are just cheap labor. Nothing more.


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