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Panera's AI drive-through test addresses labor concerns

The restaurant chain is using Tori, a voice assistant from startup OpenCity. The company says its goal is to redirect employees from the drive-through lines to other tasks.

Panera Bread's test of a new AI drive-through voice assistant shows how enterprises are using AI technology to meet previously labor-intensive needs in their business operations.

The bakery and restaurant chain revealed on Aug. 29 that it is working with startup OpenCity, a live chat platform for restaurants and nightclubs, to test a voice assistant known as Tori at two of its locations in Greece, N.Y., and Webster, N.Y.

Instead of speaking with a human, drive-through diners at those locations will place their orders through Tori, and then proceed to pay as they normally do with a human employee.

AI for specific applications

Panera is not the only restaurant chain to use AI technology to take over human tasks. Last year, McDonald's started using an AI ordering system from IBM to automate its drive-through lane. The Jet's Pizza chain is also using OrderAI Talk for phone orders.

Panera said it is using the AI technology so that its human workers can focus on other tasks instead of taking drive-through orders.

We're starting to see AI move out of that theoretical space of all the cool things AI can do.
Liz MillerAnalyst, Constellation Research

"We're starting to see AI move out of that theoretical space of all the cool things AI can do," said Liz Miller, analyst at Constellation Research. "We're starting to see real, specific kinds of business acceleration-minded applications coming off of the workbench and getting into real life."

Panera's use of Tori is not only a way to address the labor shortage, but also an attempt to make employees more satisfied with their jobs, Miller said.

In previous economic periods, AI and automation taking over jobs once done by humans raised concerns about losing entry-level jobs that traditionally enabled people to enter the workforce. But with today's labor shortage, the technology is often seen as a way to perform jobs humans don't want to do.

Employees have long been told that the way to deal with long customer wait lines is to just work faster. Now, employers are realizing that instead of just having their employees "be faster," they can redirect their employees to different tasks. With an AI assistant performing the menial tasks of taking drive-through orders or answering customer calls at the call center, employees can instead use that time to work on other tasks.

"Tori streamlines the workday for our associates so they can focus on other tasks to elevate the guest experience and make their bakery run smoothly," said Raj Anbalagan, senior vice president of digital and technology innovation at Panera Bread.

Panera will consider putting Tori in other locations after evaluating the performance of the OpenCity system at the two upstate New York locations.

Training AI technology

A test run is prudent because of all the things that can go wrong with AI, Miller said.

"AI works as well as you train it," she said.

This dividing line between AI working well or going wrong could mean Tori might first handle basic tasks before handling harder jobs as it interacts with more voices and gets better training data, such as accent, tone and pace of the customer's voice.

"AI starts as your temperamental kindergartener, and it has to be trained to be an intern," she said.

Panera's choice of a small startup like OpenCity, based in Worcester, Mass., rather than a big tech vendor, reflects the need for industry-specific data to train AI tools such as voice assistants, Miller said. It's important for enterprises using AI technology to train it on data that is relevant to their application, she said.

"Anytime you're looking at AI, whether it comes from a big vendor or whether it comes from a little vendor, we really have to ask this question of what you are training," Miller said. "Are you training it for every ingredient that exists under the sun? Or are you training it for the ingredients that exist under your sun?"

A test run will also give Panera the chance to assess customers' reactions to the technology -- whether they're happy with the technology and can use it to get through order lines faster, she said.

Panera said it chose OpenCity because the startup is well respected in the restaurant industry. OpenCity's website lists the Popeyes fast-food chain and a number of restaurants as customers.

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