McDonald’s is planning to automate its drive-throughs across the US using artificial intelligence (AI) technology thanks to its purchase of Silicon Valley firm Apprente this week.
The announcement ramped up the inevitable debate about how machine learning and AI is going to impact the job market of the future. Figures from Oxford Economics suggest up to 20 million manufacturing jobs around the world could be replaced by robots by 2030, so it’s no wonder many people are asking if a company that employs over 120,000 people in the UK alone – including many first-time jobbers – is pushing automation then how long is it before other sectors follow at pace.
Of course, the debate around machines taking our jobs is well documented. But what strikes me most about this news is the huge focus its been placing on technology adoption over the last few years.
Now, I’m not a regular visitor but on the recent occasions I have been in need of a late-night quarter pounder (fries, cheeseburger, AND some chicken nuggets), it’s hard not to notice the slickly operating self-service kiosks in operation inside my local Maccy Dees. Combine this with other acquisitions it’s made such as New York-based Dynamic Yield, which uses machine learning to collect data and perform A/B testing to deliver personalised customer experiences, and it’s apparent there’s a huge emphasis on placing technology at the heart of the home of the hamburger.
So, apart from the usual benefits that companies state technology will bring to their business (“improving both the restaurant employee and customer experience, from the acquisition of Dynamic Yield, to the expansion of McDelivery, as well as the development of McDonald’s Global Mobile App, Mobile Order and Pay, indoor and outdoor digital menu boards, and self-order kiosks” as McDonald’s said in the official press release detailing the Apprente acquisition), why does this increased technology investment matter?
Well for me it’s part of the wider question about what the criteria is for being defined as a tech company?
The answer as far as I can make out is opaque. We have, what is technically an office letting firm, WeWork aiming for a multi-billion pound IPO on the horizon (although that’s been dented somewhat), Deliveroo, which for purpose of making a point, is in the business of brokering takeaway deals and e-cigarette maker (and increasingly Silicon Valley villain) Juul, all being touted as the next big thing in big technology.
Compare this to previous generation of companies, from Hewlett-Packard to Microsoft, Cisco, Oracle and closer to home ARM, all of which made their names creating complex technology solutions rather than simple USB-powered devices, mobile applications or funky offices.
With this in mind, could one argue that given McDonalds’ recent splurge on highly complex machine learning technology, it’s more of a tech firm than a fast food outlet? The same could be said about grocers such as Sainsburys which has invested heavily in in-store and online tech or even (at a stretch) Nike which unveiled a $350 ‘smart sneaker’ earlier this year?
For me it’s an interesting debate. Perhaps the answer lies in the simple fact that technology is so ingrained in every aspect of everyday life, that in actual fact every company, from the sole trader who sells bespoke candles online to multi-billion conglomerates are tech businesses at heart.
Perhaps these are extreme examples, however, in an age where the definition of ‘tech’ is used incredibly loosely, they’re not completely implausible.
What is a tenable point though, is that understanding the role that effective, smart technology – no matter how complex or simple that technology is – can play in expanding a businesses’ bottom line is what is going to be the difference between growth, stagnation or liquidation.
McDonald’s is completely savvy to this and that is why I suppose it’s worth nearly $150 billion.