Startup using AI to make sense of drive-thru orders

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The poor quality of drive-thru ordering may be an old joke (and a staple of comedy movies), but it's also a problem that could benefit from a high-tech overhaul.

Machine learning and voice recognition can ease the many pain points of this encounter, contends Denver technology entrepreneur Rob Carpenter, the CEO of Valyant AI. Carpenter's company has developed an artificial intelligence platform that automates fast-food customer service, order-ahead, drive-thru and in-store sales, with technology in development to integrate more directly with point of sale systems.

Valyant AI was a recent finalist at a developer program at Visa, and is reportedly in discussions with McDonald's, Walmart and advisors from Yum Brands. Carpenter did not identify his clients, saying the first deployment would come in about four weeks. Visa's innovation program, the Visa Everywhere Initiative, launched in 2015 to improve the card brand's outreach to third-party developers. Valyant AI was in a category that dealt specifically with AI, voice and messaging.

Valyant uses conversational AI to produce an ordering and service experience that relies very little on hardware and manual interaction. Conversational AI is a stage beyond the voice assistants that consumers use in their homes to control their lights and music; and perform mostly rudimentary financial tasks.

At Valyant AI, the technology presents as a conversational self service kiosk, where the "robot" recognizes the consumer based on facial and voice recognition. While the current iteration of voice technology uses applied machine learning and natural language processing to support commands — "turn on the lights," for example — conversational AI adds context awareness, data and records of other conversations to personalize the customer service interaction.

Fast food is the first category for the technology, with a particular focus on the drive-thru lanes, Carpenter said. Drive-thru wait times are getting worse, a trend partially due to more complex menus as fast food chains respond to competition by selling higher quality items.

And most of the moves to speed checkout by redesigning the assembly line don't work, Carpenter said.

"A lot of fast food restaurants run two lanes in the drive-thru, but have only one person taking orders and taking plastic and cash payments and handing the food out of the window," Carpenter said. "I don't blame them, it's a lot to juggle. But with conversational AI, the system can remember past orders based on voice and make recommendations."

Direct payments will come later. Over the next year, Carpenter plans to integrate the conversational AI piece with point of sale systems and geolocation to allow consumers to store credit card details on file with chains to deepen marketing and add more speed to order, checkout and payments.

With that will come an expansion to other customer engagement channels — such as in-store sales and mobile apps — and other types of merchants such as hotels, movie theaters and bank branches. Valyant is also adding more languages, and hopes to have 30 languages active in about a year.

"By using a smart chatbot to manage incoming orders there’s an opportunity to lessen the need for workers, and finding and retaining workers is a big challenge in QSR right now," said Thad Peterson, a senior analyst at Aite Group. "Secondly, it provides the customer with a consistent interface that will generally get them to where they need to go to enable the order."

Valyant has a substantial addressable market; more than half of restaurant tasks can be automated, according to McKinsey.

"AI can speak to people in movie theaters to sell tickets, or perform checkout at a hotel or discuss home loans at bank branches," Carpenter said.

Conversational AI has gotten an early deployment at a handful of taverns, which have used AI voice interaction to take orders. These projects were done mostly on a small scale that's as much meant to entertain as to perform customer service.

And full checkout and payments are still a generation away, though in the pipeline. HSBC is using Softbank's Pepper robot for simple customer service tasks at one of its Manhattan branches, but has not enabled Pepper to handle sensitive data or payments. Similarly, U.S. Bank is waiting for improvements in the underlying technology before using voice technology more broadly than basic information requests and internal account-to-account transfers.

"As to payments, a voice interface isn’t going to be any more or less convenient for the customer until secure payments through a voice UX are fully enabled," Peterson said. "It’s coming, but it’s not there yet. I think that the order process can be automated, but payment will still have to happen at the literal point of sale until secure voice payments are available."

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Artificial intelligence Point-of-sale Retailers