McDonald’s drive-thru. (credit: WikiMedia)

McDonald’s Buys Apprente for Multi-Lingual Orders

The decision makers at Micky D’s have been spending big money on AI this year. First they spent $300 million on Dynamic Yield, then this month announced an agreement to acquire Apprente for a yet undisclosed amount.

Apprente created an AI voice control system to order fast food. The deal is a sign that McDonald’s is serious about staying one step ahead of the fast food competition, which is embracing automation for every possible task.

“Building our technology infrastructure and digital capabilities are fundamental to our Velocity Growth Plan and enable us to meet rising expectations from our customers, while making it simpler and even more enjoyable for crew members to serve guests,” McDonald’s CEO Steve Easterbrook said in a statement, referring to the strategic vision he laid out in 2017.

An article on lays out the secret to Apprente’s appeal: Apprente calls its technology “sound-to-meaning,” in contrast to “speech-to-text.” The distinction is that, unlike many voice AI models, Apprente does not transcribe what the customer says and then infer meaning from that transcript. It goes directly from speech signals to result.

“The company believes this provides a better approach for customer-experience-related use cases, particularly in noisy environments such as restaurants and public areas or in cases where customers tend to use colloquial, poorly structured language, resulting in low-accuracy speech recognition,” Raúl Castañón-Martínez, a senior analyst at 451 Research, wrote in a recent report on voice assistants.

The technology is critical for environments like a drive-through, where the fast food restaurants serve the majority of their customers. For McDonald’s, 68 million orders a year are made in cars.

Everyone has had the disappointing experience of poor speakers and poor microphones at fast food businesses. These two acquisitions should help stop that type of frustration. Apprente can speed up the information relayed into the speaker, and it doesn’t get confused by speakers with an accent. McDonald’s began using Apprente in March, and has rolled out the tech to 8,000 of the company’s 14,428 U.S. restaurants. It’ll be in “nearly all” by the end of 2019, according to a McDonald’s press release.