Aug 11, 2023 - Business

We tried White Castle's new AI drive-thru

An ordering menu for White Castle AI drive-thru.

White Castle asks customers to "speak loud & clear" to Julia, an AI drive-thru order system. Photos: Tyler Buchanan/Axios

👋 Tyler here. I've been on the hunt for a robot to take my fast food order, and recently got the chance at my neighborhood White Castle.

Deep frying the news: The Columbus-based chain has spent a few years experimenting with "Julia," its computer ordering persona, at restaurants on Hilliard-Rome Road and in Indiana.

  • The goal is to expand this technology to 100 other locations by the end of 2024.

Why it matters: AI is far from a passing chatbot fad. You are increasingly encountering AI in your day-to-day life while reading news stories, playing video games and, yes, ordering spicy chicken nuggets.

How it works: A "terms and conditions" screen greets drive-thru customers, who must approve having their voices recorded to benefit the AI machine learning models.

  • I kicked things off with a simple hamburger slider and fries. Julia nailed it.

Then came a tougher test. I wanted two chicken sliders, but purposefully told her three and tried to fix it.

  • Julia instead added a fourth and for some reason tossed in two orders of chicken rings.

What they're saying: This is the main challenge for AI developers, White Castle vice president Jamie Richardson tells me.

  • "One of the things we didn't realize is how many different ways people choose to say the same order. It could be 'gimme some sliders,' or 'I'll take some sliders' or 'how about some sliders?'"
  • Julia is gradually learning to recognize these word variations, while developers work to speed up her own "voice" to sound more natural, Richardson says.

The intrigue: Customers can request help from a human crew member at any point.

  • I decided against it — if robot overlords are indeed coming, we might as well learn how to work with them.
  • Julia didn't understand how to "change" an order, but caught on once I used simpler phrases like "remove chicken rings."
  • She finally got the order correct and sent it back to Flippy, a robotic arm handling the deep fryer station.

Between the lines: The Columbus region is expected to see 13% of its workforce threatened by AI development, we recently reported, but Richardson insists that's not happening at White Castle.

  • "This isn't replacing people," he contends. "It's investing, just like we would if we put a new grill system in or a new register system in or we did other things that help us give our team members better tools."

For the time being, that appears true at the Hilliard-Rome Road location.

  • A big sign greeted me at the drive-thru window: "Now hiring."
A White Castle drive-thru sign reading "Meet Julia Our New Virtual Assistant."
A drive-thru sign introducing Julia, White Castle's AI "virtual assistant."
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