McDonald's Drive-Thrus Are About to Be Very Different

Your local McDonald's drive-thru might look a tad bit altered pretty soon; that is, if the company's research and development project continues to go as planned. As announced back in October, McDonald's and IBM have partnered to further develop a robotic drive-thru service to take customers' orders. This would, of course, replace a duty currently done by employees. The project is said to be in the next phase of development.

McDonald's began testing computerized order-taking services earlier this year in just a few restaurants in the Chicago area, all through its in-house research and development service McD Tech Labs. In late October, the company announced that it had sold McD Tech Labs to IBM, creating a partnership that would be better equipped to push this technology to the next phase. This means that automated drive-thrus will now be tested at more locations all around the U.S. Hopefully, they perform better than the unpopular tests in Chicago, which inspired at least one viral video of a disgruntled customer's experience.

"In my mind, IBM is the ideal partner for McDonald's, given their expertise in building AI-powered customer care solutions and voice recognition," said McDonald's CEO Chris Kempczinski in a statement published by CNBC. He added that the merger between IBM and McD Labs was necessary because the next phase of development is "beyond the scale of our core competencies."

Of course, the implementation of artificial intelligence raises eyebrows in just about any context, but in one so ubiquitous as this it's bound to cause concern. McDonald's and IBM home to mitigate that, saying: "IBM and McDonald's are both committed to adopting AI responsibly by embedding ethical principles into AI applications and processes to build systems based on trust and transparency."

Still, some have already speculated that an AI ordering service will allow the company to collect data – at the very least, customers' commonly ordered items and the times they typically visit a McDonald's location. As a report by ZDNet points out, this is "data" that would once have been stored in the memory of personable restaurant employee, but will now be cached in the server banks of IBM, to be accessed for whatever research or advertising purposes the companies see fit.

Many critics on social media are also raising concerns about the impact this will have on fast food workers around the country. Some are revisiting conversations about "Universal Basic Income" (UBI), and other programs to protect the livelihoods of workers whose jobs are eliminated by automation. At the time of this writing, no such measures are being actively discussed among American lawmakers.