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Wendy's testing AI chatbot that takes drive-thru orders

It could be an artificial intelligence that takes your order the next time you get a craving for a Baconator and Frosty. 

Fast food chain Wendy's is partnering with Google Cloud on an AI chatbot to take orders at a drive-thru, the company announced Tuesday. Wendy's FreshAI will be launched in June as a pilot in a Columbus, Ohio area restaurant. Based on how the AI-ordering system performs, the pilot will be expanded.

The AI could potentially handle a huge portion of service; around 75 to 80% of customers prefer to order through the drive-thru, according to the chain. Wendy's is not the first fast-food chain to turn to automated processes. McDonald's launched an automated restaurant in 2022.

CKE Restaurants Holdings, the owner and operator of fast food chains Carl's Jr. and Hardee's, is also rolling out artificial intelligence at its drive-thrus, the company announced earlier in April. Experts with the National Restaurant Association have said using AI can help cut back on labor costs and address staffing challenges. 

Generative AI, which are tools designed to generate text, images or other media from user prompts, will have the ability to converse with Wendy's customers, understand made-to-order requests and generate answers to frequently asked questions, according to the company. It will be integrated with restaurant hardware and the sales system.

The technology could mean faster service for customers, Wendy's President and CEO Todd Penegor said. The restaurant chain said they're hoping that using AI at the drive-thru will let employees focus on making and serving the food, while also building relationships with customers. 

Wendy's and Google anticipate some possible challenges due to the complexity of the menu, special requests and ambient noise. With so many menu items and customization possibilities, there are "billions of possible order combinations," according to a press release. That can lead to miscommunication and incorrect orders being served. 

Some have expressed concern about quick pivots to using AI technology. For instance, some worry it could take jobs away from people. A March Goldman Sachs report found that AI services could automate as many as 300 million full-time jobs worldwide.

Industry leaders have taken a close look at the potential problems AI could cause. Geoffrey Hinton, a man known as the "godfather of artificial intelligence," recently quit his job at Google so he could freely speak about the dangers of AI. Google CEO Sundar Pichai has also called for AI advancements to be released in a responsible way. In an April interview with "60 Minutes," he said society needed to come up with regulations for AI in the economy, along with laws to punish abuse.

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