Clinc is building a voice AI system to replace humans in drive-through restaurants

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Clinc is expanding its focus on fintech into new verticals that could take advantage of its conversational artificial intelligence. The Ann Arbor-based company recently took the wraps off its new system that aims to provide quick-service restaurants like McDonald’s and Taco Bell with a voice assistant in the drive-through window.

I got a demo of the new system. For the most part, even in its early state, it works as advertised. Want a double cheeseburger without pickles and mayo with a side of fries and a Coke? With Clinc’s system, a person can order food as if they were talking to a human. Have questions or want to make changes to the order? Again, the person ordering the food does not have to modify their speech pattern or use a voice menu tree — just talk to the system normally.

This is Clinc’s second implementation of it conversational AI system. This isn’t Siri or Alexa. This technology is from the next generation.

The company started with a solution for fintech and currently has several contracts with major banks such as USAA, Barclays and S&P Global. In most cases, when integrated into the bank’s system, Clinc’s technology emulates human intelligence and can interpret unstructured, unconstrained speech. The idea is to let users converse with their bank account using natural language without pre-defined templates or hierarchical voice menus.

Clinc was founded by University of Michigan professors Dr. Jason Mars, Dr. Johann Hauswald, Dr. Lingjia Tang and Dr. Michael Laurenzano.

Mars tells me Clinc spun up the quick-service restaurant (QSR) product in about two weeks. He explains that Clinc’s platform allows programmers to drag and drop a restaurant’s menu to add items to the voice service.

I watched a Clinc engineer use the system for about an hour. Over and over again, the system processed the order correctly, but occasionally it got it wrong. It seems changing an order is just as easy as placing one though, and the engineer was able to modify the order on the fly.

When using the system, it’s obvious a computer is speaking. Good or bad, if implemented by restaurants, this could be one of the largest barriers to adoption by consumers. For the most part, ordering from a fast food restaurant is an easy affair, but occasionally it gets complicated and Clinc’s system has to be able to handle everything — or have triggers that cause the system to connect the orderer with a live person to resolve the issue.

The QSR product is coming to market at a critical time. Fast-food restaurants are increasingly looking for ways to reduce the number of workers in their stores while also looking for new ways for customers to order food. It’s clear this product can be modified to address other voice-heavy industries, too, such as call centers and appointment booking services.





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