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As it turns out, 2023 is likely going to be the year that AI voice technology is improved and perfected.

Tech Tracker: AI voice ordering is here to stay—and it keeps getting better

A Q&A with Soundhound on the company’s latest AI for drive-thrus, plus Domino’s rolls out electric delivery vehicles, Grubhub invests in more delivery bots

While 2021 was the year we were introduced to AI voice ordering in the drive-thru lane, 2022 became the year we started seeing the labor-saving technology everywhere. As it turns out, 2023 is likely going to be the year that AI voice technology is improved and perfected. For this month’s Tech Tracker column, we spoke with Soundhound about the tech company’s latest audiovisual AI technology for food ordering that more easily understands natural cadences of human speech. The goal? Less friction and frustration in the drive-thru lane as customers struggle to get a robot to understand their lunch order.

Also this month, Domino’s is rolling out a fleet of electric delivery vehicles, and more delivery bots will be found rolling around on college campuses.

Tech Tracker rounds up what’s happening in the technology sector of the restaurant industry, including news from restaurants, vendors, digital platforms, and third-party delivery companies. Here’s a breakdown of what you need to know and why:

SoundHound launches Dynamic Interaction software that upgrades AI voice technology

As labor continues to be a pain point for the restaurant industry, more operators are investing in AI and automation technology to alleviate some of that stress. Over the past couple of years, we’ve seen White Castle, Panera, McDonald’s, Sonic, and more invest in voice ordering AI for the drive-thru to improve speed and efficiency. But the technology still has a long way to go and is imperfect in understanding human dialect, slang and speech cadence.

That’s where SoundHound comes in. The AI software technology company admits that they aren’t the first or only food ordering voice technology out there, but they want to be the first to perfect it.

“Right now we talk to voice assistants, but you have to say wake words like Hey Siri, Hey Alexa to get their attention,” SoundHound CEO Keyvan Mohajer told Nation’s Restaurant News. “Then you ask them a question and you wait for them to respond. And then when they are responding, you have to be quiet. And then when you respond back, you have to say something they expect. […] we feel like another breakthrough is needed.”

SoundHound is launching Dynamic Interaction technology, which allows people to interact with the voice AI in a more natural way that imitates “normal” speech patterns: no “wake word” or turn-taking needed. As people talk to the AI — whether in a drive-thru lane or in-restaurant tabletop kiosk — they can see a text reproduction of the dialogue happening live in front of them, and how the AI is able to understand questions, changes to orders, and slang words. The tech is also fully automated so there is no need for an employee pulling the strings behind the scenes.

“Most of these other players [in voice ordering tech] position it as AI, but there's actually human in the background,” Mohajer said. “So you feel like you're talking to an AI, but somebody's actually listening and punching into order. I think at this time, we’re the only fully automated one out there.”

Mohajer demonstrated the type of dialogue that the AI is able to understand:

“How much is a brownie? Ok, start over. Pulled Pork burger, lettuce-wrapped, brownie, onion rings, Spring water and a vanilla cupcake. Delete the first item and add French fries, get rid of the spring water, scratch the onion rings, and add a side salad with blue cheese,” the video demonstration showed.

This type of live interactivity is called bi-directional communication, Mohajer said. But don’t expect this technology to be in your favorite fast-food drive-thru lane immediately. The product has just been announced, and SoundHound has announced a partnership with Mastercard and White Castle as the technology is being rolled out in 2023 and beyond.

Domino’s is rolling out a fleet of 800 electric delivery vehicles

Domino’s — a leader in delivery technology — announced last month that the company is rolling out a fleet of 100 Chevy Bolt electric vehicles at the tail end of 2022, followed by another 700 EVs in 2023. The company claims it will be the largest pizza delivery vehicle fleet in the country and has created a virtual map to show where your closest Domino’s electric delivery vehicle is located.

“Domino’s launched pizza delivery in 1960 with a Volkswagen Beetle, rolled out the DXP® – a custom-built pizza delivery vehicle – in 2015, tested autonomous pizza delivery with cars and robots, and is now leading the charge in the future of pizza delivery,” Domino’s CEO Russell Weiner said in a statement. “Domino’s has always been on the cutting edge of pizza delivery and electric delivery cars make sense as vehicle technology continues to evolve.”

This is part of Domino’s commitment to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and follows the company’s trend of alternate delivery avenues, including driverless vehicles and sidewalk bots. Domino’s is also not the only company testing out the electric vehicle market. Taco Bell began rolling out electric vehicle charging stations at restaurants this fall.

Grubhub adds delivery robots to more college campuses

Grubhub announced earlier this month a partnership with last-mile robot delivery company KiwiBot to bring robot delivery to more college campuses this year, starting with the University of North Dakota, before the service will be rolled out to a dozen or more schools throughout the year.

Grubhub already partners with other autonomous robot companies, Cartken and Starship, and KiwiBot will just be added to its roster. The Cartken partnership was first announced in June of this year, which added robot delivery services to more than 250 college campuses in 2022. Universities seem to be the best testing ground for robot delivery capabilities, since there is little vehicle traffic and young students are more likely to quickly adapt to robot technology.   

MarginEdge software company raises $45 million  

MarginEdge — the restaurant management and bill paying software platform — announced this month that the technology company had raised $45 million in Series C fundraising led by Ten Coves Capital. In total, the tech company has raised $70 million in pursuit of market expansion. With this latest round of funding, MarginEdge plans to continue scaling its team and adding more functionality to its suite of software capabilities.

Eatkube launches as surprise restaurant reservation platform

As third-party delivery companies begin adding restaurant reservation capabilities, the industry is looking for more ways to engage and attract new customers. Enter Eatkube: a new restaurant reservations platform that is designed to introduce customers to new businesses and cuisines by making surprise reservations.

Customers can input the date, time, price range, and number of people they want to dine with, and Eatkube’s algorithm will hit “shuffle” on the database of 100+ restaurants in each city to book the party a surprise reservation. Customers can remove specific categories of restaurant from the list that they don’t want, but they don’t have any more autonomy over their dinner plans than that. Diners also have the option of making a game out of it and following clues/solving riddles to get to their dinner reservation.

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