Presto plans to improve its drive-thru AI by letting it make mistakes

The restaurant technology company’s latest product, Pure AI, cuts out human minders to allow the software to learn on its own.
Presto's Pure AI is outperforming the human-supported version, the CEO said. | Photo courtesy of Presto Automation

Drive-thru technology supplier Presto Automation believes it can improve its AI voicebot by letting it make some mistakes.

The company, which works with fast-food chains such as Carl’s Jr. and Checkers, said the latest iteration of its AI can take drive-thru orders on its own, without human oversight—though it can ask for help if it needs it.

The idea, said interim CEO Gee Lefevre, is to expose Presto’s AI to more interactions, which in turn will make it smarter. It can refer an order to a restaurant employee if it gets stuck, but remote monitors in the Philippines are no longer part of the process.

“We’ve changed its confidence intervals to let it go further down the road,” he said. “We’re just giving it more freedom.”

Presto's technology has been criticized for relying so heavily on humans to operate. The approach, known as human-in-the-loop, is a common AI training model and helps ensure accuracy. But it is not what most people picture when they think of artificial intelligence.

At the same time, Lefevre, who was named CEO in February, theorized that human-in-the-loop prevents the AI from reaching its full potential because agents step in too often. As of earlier this year, about 70% of Presto orders required human intervention, according to a report filed with the SEC.

“As a result, we’re artificially repressing the efficiency of the AI, but also we’re limiting its ability to learn because we’re curtailing the edge cases,” he said in an interview. Navigating those outliers makes the AI better.

Artificial intelligence has made inroads in fast-food drive-thrus as restaurants look for ways to ease their labor costs. But it has faced questions about accuracy and its ability to manage busy drive-thru lanes.  

Presto warned restaurants participating in a test of Pure AI that it would probably perform worse at first, but would improve quickly. Lefevre said Pure AI’s efficiency is now “significantly higher” than the human-in-the-loop model, though he declined to give exact numbers.

The new strategy represents a reemergence of sorts for publicly traded Presto, which has been dealing with financial turmoil. In an SEC filing in February, the company said that liquidity issues had created “substantial doubt” about its future, and it has been working to raise capital to stay afloat.

Lefevre was hired in part to help right the ship financially, and he said the company has made “material progress.” But he also wanted to shift the spotlight back to Presto’s technology. “We had too much talk about financing and not enough talk about what it is we did,” he said.

Pure AI is part of that effort. The technology both reflects the progress Presto has made and pushes the envelope on what it can do in the future, Lefevre said. “In the long term, Pure AI is looking forward and going, ‘That’s what it probably will be,’” he said.

He also saw a need to educate the market about what AI is capable of today. The technology is a spectrum, he said, with varying levels of human involvement. He wants to position Presto somewhere in the middle, between human-supported AI, which is accurate but costly, and full autonomy, which tends to be less accurate.

“A huge part of what I’ve been trying to do with the sales team is … to set real expectations of what this can and can’t do,” he said.

Lefevre said Presto has seen a lot of interest in Pure AI from existing and new customers. And he hinted that there would be more news soon.

“This company is not gonna sort of shout about it and underdeliver,” he said. “You are about to see a change in pace … because we’ve gone away and done the work.” 

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