Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken, a fast-food chain in Ohio, hardly seems an obvious venue for cutting-edge artificial intelligence. But the company’s drive-thrus are showcasing technology that reveals how the Covid-19 pandemic is accelerating the creep of automation into some workplaces.
Unable to find enough workers, Chuck Cooper, CEO of Lee’s Famous Recipe Chicken, installed an automated voice system in many locations to take orders. The system, developed by Intel and Hi Auto, a voice recognition firm, never fails to upsell customers on fries or a drink, which Cooper says has boosted sales. At outlets with the voice system, there’s no longer a need for a person to take orders at the drive-thru window. “It also never calls in sick,” Cooper says.
Cooper says he thinks enhanced unemployment checks have kept some potential workers away, but he says concerns about exposure to Covid and difficulty getting child care because of the pandemic may also be factors. Still, he says, “There’s no way we’re going back.”
Other employers, too, are deploying automation in place of workers during the pandemic. Some restaurants and supermarkets say they cannot find enough new workers to open new locations. Many businesses are keen to rehire workers as quickly as they can, but economists say the technology will remain, replacing employees in some cases.
History suggests “automation takes place faster during recessions and sticks thereafter,” says Daron Acemoglu, an economist at MIT. “It should be doubly true today.” Acemoglu says companies are adopting more automation partly due to staff shortages but also because it can help with new safety measures, and to improve efficiency.
“Automation takes place faster during recessions and sticks thereafter.” – Daron Acemoglu, economist, MIT