AI in Restaurants: What it is and What it is Not
Does the term “artificial intelligence” make you uneasy? It wouldn’t be unusual. Through every genre, from SciFi to comedy, authors and filmmakers have presented variations on this theme: humans creators give artificial intelligence (AI) to machines. Then, those machines use that intelligence to overtake their creators, enslaving them or something equally evil. This media speaks to an uneasy relationship we have about machines – we don’t always understand their capabilities. While terrifying (or fun?) to imagine though, the realities of AI are a lot less bleak.
Odds are, you already see AI in your daily life, especially when shopping, dining, or seeking entertainment. Read on to learn more about AI in restaurants, among other industries, and how it’s projected to grow.
What is AI?
AI refers to programs which are designed to perform a particular task by responding to specific environments or inputs. Because AI programs can change depending on their context, they tend to mimic human behavior.
If you’ve ever played a video game, you’ve seen AI. Characters in the game, or an opposing sports team, will interact with you, speak or even attack, depending on what you do. They’ve been programmed to do so. As video game technology improves, these characters have become more realistic and lifelike. What makes AI different from real human intelligence though is that AI is purely reactive; it can only respond to set protocols. While humans call upon the breadth of their own life experiences and knowledge to learn and solve problems, making choices along the way, programmers create AI with specific parameters in mind. In other words, those zombies from your video game only exist in that video game. They’re not able to think for themselves. So, barring any freakish accidents, a robot takeover is unlikely.
Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence
Another important part of AI is machine learning. This specific subset of AI involves a program or a machine “learning” specific functions over time by analyzing data and inputs. You may have had a shopping or streaming service make “suggestions” to you. These suggestions reach you via algorithms that analyze your activity to “learn” about you, personalizing the experience based on your behavior. It’s dynamic and operates on its own. As you use the site more, that algorithm continues to “learn” your behavior, further refining your suggestions. AI and machine learning aren’t mutually exclusive: machine learning is a part of AI.
Think of AI as a specific component of a machine or software. It allows that device to perform a set of tasks, adjusting them as the environment changes. Knowing how AI works then, helps us understand how we can apply it to restaurants.
Types of Restaurant AI
Robots – Dispelling the Myth
Robots and their encroachment into the workforce strike fear in many. It’s no secret that technology and automation can render some jobs irrelevant. A recent MIT survey compiled expert data in the subject, to suggest that technology could supplant anywhere from a few million to over a billion US jobs by 2021. That’s a huge range though, suggesting that for all the fears we have, the jury is still out on the specifics of a technological takeover.
We have seen some restaurants employing AI robots to varying degrees of success though. A Caliburger restaurant in Pasadena recently introduced Flippy, a robot who can reportedly prepare over 300 burgers in a day. The novel concept has developed a considerable amount of press, with the chain calling for 50 more Flippy models by the end of 2019.
Dominos has also reported some successes with their self-driving delivery pizza robots in Europe, with plans to expand the program more. While these robots attract scads of press coverage in the outset, they’re shiny exceptions and not really “rules” in the restaurant industry.
One of the more realistic types of AI you’ll see in restaurants is ordering kiosks. These machines let guests input their orders on site. Then that kiosk acts as the point-of-sale system, sending the order directly to the kitchen. Through machine learning, they can analyze global buying patterns in your restaurant, to make “informed” upsell suggestions to the guests.
So, if your restaurant or POS uses customer profiles or a loyalty program, the kiosks can offer on-site promotions explicitly tailored to that guest, like a discount on their favorite meal or a free birthday item. These suggestions happen on site and use “impulse purchase” psychology to their advantage.
You may have already spoken with a chatbot and not known it. Chatbots are a simulated human contact, and you often see them in tech support on websites. When it comes to restaurants, these chatbots can manage reservations, take an order, or respond to customer inquiries. They answer to a guest’s queries with typed messages, the way a human would, providing direct feedback, suggestions, and confirmations. With voice-command technology becoming more and more mainstream, chatbots who can respond to sound, the same way Siri or Alexa would have already begun development. Through AI, chatbots keep your restaurant brand personable and responsive, without any involvement from you.
Virtual Personal Assistants
Virtual Assistants and their technology, like Alexa or Google Home, are growing at a rapid pace, with the estimated number of users to reach 1.8 million by 2021. These devices touch the restaurant industry when guests use them to search for places to eat. These personal assistants can take in data from restaurants, like locations, wait times and distances. Then, diners can place reservations or orders, all through simulated interaction between the two machines.
Restaurant Mobile Apps
If your restaurant uses an ordering app, you can send tailored promotions or upsell messages, based on a customer profile. Many restaurant reservation systems and apps use AI to provide guests with dining suggestions. By analyzing a user’s location and buying habits, these apps can determine if a customer is traveling, make restaurant suggestions based on these criteria, and update in real-time.
Restaurant Operations Management Technology
Using technology to manage restaurant operators isn’t anything new, but through AI, their features are becoming more powerful. Using software to manage restaurant inventory, finances, and schedules have become far more commonplace for operators, so machine learning functions within those programs become that much more critical. By analyzing data, like sales figures, these programs can make projections on what the future will hold. You can make adjustments to your workflow or purchasing decisions from here. What makes these projections so applicable is that they’re generated based on existing data, and not arbitrary predictions. AI helps ensure that you make informed operations decisions.
Where Will You See Restaurant AI?
It’s hard to say which segments will benefit most from restaurant AI, as one could make a case for all of them. One thing to note though is that AI technology, especially with hardware like kiosks (or robots!) includes high upfront costs which will prohibit some restaurants outright. While restaurant AI isn’t only for the national or multi-site chains, these sites will probably have an easier go of implementing it than will a smaller, independent operation. There are no rules though; this independent San Francisco Burger Restaurant uses an AI robot to prepare food.
Why Restaurant AI?
Beyond their flashy technical features, restaurant operators can find a variety of uses for AI. Artificial Intelligence in Restaurants can help restaurant operators:
- Cut costs – Kiosks and chatbots free up staff from taking orders and reservations, automating this process.
- Reduce errors – With much of the ordering process done via machines, the chances for miscommunication dwindle.
- Empower customers – AI often lets customers control the flow. They can order and customize to their needs.
- Improve the guest experience – AI helps offload tasks so your staff can be always “in the moment,” focusing on optimizing the guest’s dining experience.
- Increase marketing reach – AI helps upsell and suggest to customers in automated ways you couldn’t. It enables you to reach them outside of your restaurant to stay top-of-mind.
The Future of AI in Restaurants
For now though, all restaurant operators should be aware of AI. It’s here, and it’s developing swiftly. But breathe easy! With all its projected benefits, the idea of the robotic wait staff, fully automatic and adaptable to the restaurant environment, isn’t quite here yet.
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About the Author
Dylan Chadwick is a Content Marketing Specialist at QSR Automations. He graduated from Brigham Young University with an English degree and journalism focus and loves to write about technology. When left to his own devices, he enjoys loud music, adorable dogs and documentaries about the aforementioned.