In 2021 Mythic Games, with the backing of Ubisoft, announced a Kickstarter campaign for an officially-licensed board game adaptation of Rainbow Six: Siege. Two years later, Mythic are asking people who already paid for the game to pay a bit—and in some cases a lot—more.
Imagine Star Wars without merch. Or Ewoks. Or another Death Star, just two movies after the first. Imagine if Leia and Luke weren’t related, and might have become lovers. Imagine Han Solo dying in the third film rather than the seventh. Or Leia Organa never marrying, and taking on her ruler’s role as a burden—a laying…
By the end of 2021, dine-in visits to fast food chains had fallen to just 14 percent of restaurant traffic, compared to 28 percent pre-pandemic, according to the market research firm NPD Group. When it comes to burgers and fries, people are increasingly scarfing them down in their homes, at their offices, in their cars — anywhere, really, but in the restaurant.
Now, McDonald’s and other fast food and fast casual giants are betting on the “digital kitchen” — sleek, compact stores that harness automation and digitalization to have diners ordering through mobile apps or digital kiosks — to get diners in and out in record time. Meanwhile, chains are “demolishing” their dining rooms, or shrinking them, in order to meet the demand of drive-thru and digital ordering, Steven Baker, an architect at Harrison French and Associates who works on fast food restaurant design and development, wrote in an article last year. For McDonald’s, Sweetgreen, and others, reducing seating means chains can open smaller stores, saving on expensive real estate, especially in urban areas.
The big transformation taking place inside restaurants also threatens to change how the industry looks at labor. In April, McDonald’s announced hundreds of layoffs in its corporate offices as part of a larger strategy to open new locations while investing more into digital, delivery, and drive-thru. And for all fast food and fast casual restaurants, whether it’s third-party delivery apps, automated kiosks, or even food delivery by drone, the glittering promise of tech is the ability to offload to machines more and more of the tasks performed by people paid an hourly wage.
Last year, 85 percent of fast food restaurant orders were to-go, according to data from NPD. Drive-thrus are busier than ever, with roughly three-quarters of orders being placed at a drive-thru. Foodservice consulting firm Technomic found that 73 percent of all orders at limited-service restaurants (places where you pay in advance and don’t typically have table service, including both fast food and fast casual restaurants) were either carryout or delivery in the first half of 2022.
McDonald’s has responded to the shift by opening a new dining room-less concept restaurant in Fort Worth, Texas, designed around digital orders and more efficient pickups.Sweetgreen has also launched a fewlocationswithout seating, including its first digital-order-only, pick-up-only location in DC in late 2022; it will open two fully automated restaurants in 2023. Chipotle, too, has been dabbling with smaller, digital kitchens offering only pick-up or drive-thru, while Panera Bread, a sandwich-serving staple with booths and tables galore in the suburbs, is opening smaller stores with less seating in urban areas, as well as to-go-only stores. Digital sales now account for half of its total system sales, according to the company, and a spokesperson told Vox in an email that the company is “redefining its dining experience to serve today’s guest in an increasingly off-premise world.”
Burger King, KFC, Wingstop, the list goes on. At IHOP’s nascent Flip’d locations, all the food is packaged to go, and there’s limited seating — the modern, urban evolution of a chain famous for being a drunken late-night refuge.
All of this is happening not because the fast food industry is struggling and trying to cut its costs, but for the exact opposite reason. “It’s having a renaissance,” says Adam Chandler, author of a book about the fast food industry called Drive-Thru Dreams.
McDonald’s is a particular standout; it reported sales growth of more than 10 percent in 2022, recording a profit of $6.1 billion, after increasing prices by about 10 percent in 2022, too. Cost no longer seems to deter customers. As one analyst remarked during the company’s Q1 2023 earnings call, fast food delivery is booming even though it’s more expensive, diluting the value proposition of a cheap meal. “Shockingly, in a lot of places, people are willing to pay double what they would pay to have a box of doughnuts and a large fries arrive to them 20 to 30 minutes later, slightly soggy,” Chandler says.
“The convenience driver has become more and more important as the years have passed,” says Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research at the National Restaurant Association. “Even before the pandemic, about 61 percent of fast food sales were off-premise.” After reaching a high of almost 90 percent during lockdowns, they’re now still hovering around 75 percent, according to Riehle.
If fast food restaurants become less of a place to eat and hang out and more of a pit stop — a transitory space to pick up or hand off food — it also offers chains the opportunity to dramatically cut one of the industry’s most vexing operating costs: paying human employees. “Another part of this whole thing is wrapped up in labor, and how they can maximize profits by automating a lot of this,” Chandler says.
The future of fast food, as idealized by restaurants, involves robots taking orders, cooking them, and delivering them right to your car.
“You’re seeing a lot of big growth in the chains, and they’re taking this moment to recalibrate and figure out their next strategies,” Chandler says.
Restaurants’ no-dining-room experiments coincide with the beefing-up of drive-thrus, which became more popular post-pandemic and also face significant bottlenecks (see: long lines overflowing onto main roads). Taco Bell’s new concept restaurant has four drive-thru lanes where food is delivered directly to the customer’s car via a vertical lift. (There is no dining room.) The demand for drive-thru has been such a growth area for fast food that even full-service restaurants are adding them.
Consumers have a fairly short amount of patience for their fast food order to be ready. According to a 2020 Deloitte report, 75 percent of consumers say waiting up to 30 minutes for their food delivery is reasonable. For fast food, 42 percent of diners said they expected their orders in five minutes or less. Fast food chains are using a host of new tech to speed up orders and delivery times: Voice bots to improve the accuracy and efficiency of drive-thru orders; apps and in-store kiosks so customers can place their orders without ever having to interact with a human. They’re even using location data that lets employees know when a customer is nearing the store to pick up their food, and experimenting with containers and packaging to ensure that food doesn’t get soggy during delivery.
“If the pandemic did one thing, it was to teach the typical American restaurant patron how to use digital ordering,” Riehle says. “The critical importance of digital ordering cannot be overstated.”
While fast food restaurants might want to fully automate, it’ll take some convincing and acclimation. Customers are a little wary of it — according to a survey by brand strategy firm Big Red Rooster, almost a third say that they don’t want to see robots preparing their food. It’s a departure from how people viewed fast food when it first appeared on the scene in the early 20th century. In a time before a uniform health code, the mechanization and consistency of fast food was a comfort, says Chandler. The allure of White Castle — the first fast food chain in the US, having opened in 1921 — was that it “standardized the look of the restaurants” and showed people a “very clean, well-lit place to dine.”
“It’s funny, because nowadays — in the last 15 or 20 years — the idea of having a place look exactly the same when you go in is kind of dystopian,” he says.
But whatever discomfort diners may feel about a robot fry cook, automating the fast food experience to be an even faster, to-go experience is the big-dollar-sign future for the industry — running a fast food restaurant, especially if you’re just a franchisee, is a fairly small-margin business. While dining in has made a comeback since the lockdowns, it’s still not back at pre-pandemic levels. It’s unclear if it will ever fully recover — or if we’ve simply entered a new era of enjoying fast food outside of the restaurant. Just as car culture gave rise to the fast food experience we’ve known for the past half-century, the smartphone is now ushering it into its next iteration, for a more atomized world where commuters and road trippers don’t have to pause at all for their meals.
Something stands to be lost with the shrinking of dining rooms and expansion of drive-thrus, says Chandler. The fast food joint often serves as a “third place,” a stand-in for the lack of other public spaces and institutions offering a neutral place to hang out. “When I was reporting [for my book], I would go to small towns in the Plains states,” he says, “and I would see the local Burger King is where a bunch of old timers meet every morning, have coffee and maybe a sandwich, and hang out.”
“To see the playgrounds going away — to see the stores’ footprints reducing in size, where you see this enormous emphasis on smaller or fewer dining rooms and more drive-thru lanes, speaks to a movement away from those third places,” Chandler says.
The assassin’s teapot is certainly an eye-catching name for pottery, but there’s also an interesting bit of physics going on here. The teapot in question has two separate chambers for holding liquid, and the flow out of the pot from each chamber can be controlled by covering or uncovering small holes located on the handle. So, as the legend goes, a would-be assassin could pour themselves a perfectly fine drink from one chamber and then pour a poisoned drink to their prey from the other chamber, just by discreetly covering and uncovering the proper holes with their fingers. As the video explains, the mechanism here has to do with surface tension and air pressure.
You can get your own assassin’s teapot right here.
There seems to be an interesting mismatch going on with ChatGPT.
OpenAI and Microsoft (already using it in Bing chat) are hyping it to the moon. The media are writing breathless articles about its brilliance (it can pass the bar exam!). What's being represented, though, is that it has an advanced capacity to assess information, not just spit it back.
I wrote months ago that what AI was going to do, eventually, was to replace middle managers. I still believe that, too, and its affects will be seismic, but I also think how these tools are being represented in their current state is very misleading. There are too many reports of individual people (professors, notably) who correctly point out that ChatGPT is great at presenting information, but it's often wrong information (here's an example). It's not mimicking thinking in any effective way.
There's only one explanation for the mismatch: there is a gigantic financial incentive to promote the product, and lots and lots of companies are going to make enormous amounts of money. Otherwise, no one would care, and no one would misrepresent its capabilities.
Always follow the money.
Let's go into the future, though. At some point, ChatGPT or something like it will be able to represent thinking in a way where we can't easily spot the difference. It will allow corporations to replace (cumulatively) millions of employees.
Automation took away a large number of low-end jobs. Now, AI will take away a large number of jobs in the middle.
What are these people supposed to do?
Will Americans still look down on unemployment as a moral failing, or does this change as more and more people are affected? We're famous for not thinking anything is a problem until it's a problem for us, but in this case, "us" is getting larger and larger. Is this going to lead to some form of Universal Basic Income? If you don't fund social services, and people can't work, how are they supposed to survive?
The never-ending quest for extracting every penny of corporate profit in this country, in conjunction with these same companies vehemently fighting any regulation, has always been a bomb with a fuse. The only question is how much of the fuse is left.
I view ChatGPT as one of those profound aha moments in the history of technology: I wasn’t around to see the birth of the first Apple machine, but I have read about it. I saw the world change when I started using the Netscape browser, even though I had used the Internet before. I was among the first few to experience pre-launch Google and then later at the launch of the iPhone. I picked these historical moments because they fundamentally changed our relationship with information.
Netscape browser opened us up to the wonder of infinite information. Google made it easy for us to search and pull up whatever we needed, whenever we needed. The iPhone (and later smartphones) made information available anywhere, anytime. These three events changed our behavior and how we viewed and interacted with information. ChatGPT is one of those moments — after this, we will interact with information in an entirely different way: as an almost human conversation.
We have been on this path for a long time. We have been typing complete questions into Google’s Search Bar and asking Siri and Alexa to do things for us. Our kids are growing up having a conversation with machines. For today’s kids, devices with no keyboard or ones that work with gestures and voice commands are as typical as a day starting with sunrise. ChatGPT and its progeny will be part of our future, where we experience reality through a thin veneer of mixed reality glasses or holographic displays. It is not if but when.
That said, I want to sprinkle a caution in our thinking around AI and ChatGPT, primarily because, in the recent past, I have seen Silicon Valley get high on its fumes. And we, indeed, are getting ahead of ourselves. How do I know — Salesforce and its chief, Marc Benioff, who hasn’t met a trend he didn’t incorporate into his corporate buzzword bingo, will announce EinsteinGPT. When Salesforce embraced the “cloud,” it crossed a marketing transom. Rinse, repeat. Anyway, let’s get back to the main thing — ChatGPT.
A few years ago, the hype machine decided that “self driving” was the new wonder bread just around the corner. And then it was web3. And now it is GPT. Technology is more complex and not as straightforward as a hot take. The fact is that the science and technology of technology are very hard — and keep getting harder. We live in a growing complexity of how “tech” interacts with the real world. This complexity means that there are no overnight miracles. No overnight stars, no overnight collapses.
Even though much has been written about AI, its impact, and its challenges, this video by comedian John Oliver gives us an overview of the state of AI today. And it is funny! I highly recommend you watch it. As Oliver points out, AI and ChatGPT are complex issues. Here are some articles that I found enjoyable and informative.
From Samantha to Dolores: M.G. Siegler, an investor, and cinema buff writes about virtual chatbots and how they have been portrayed in popular culture, their hope, and their hype. (A long time ago, I interviewed KK Barrett, a production designer on the movie Her, which has become quite a rage amongst twitter-pundits. KK told me something that has always stayed with me: “It was the story of the attempt to be connected with another human.” For me, all technology is about humans. If we remember that, we be okay. If we don’t, we end up with the likes of Meta.
Building guide rails around ChatGPT: AI will be a topic of immense debate in Washington DC., and as a result, think tanks will help influence the legislation around AI and its widespread impact. Brookings Institution has shared its thinking on ChatGPT.