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Artificial Intelligence comes to Slurpees and Big Macs

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Convenience store giant 7-Eleven revealed last week during the Re-Work A.I. conference in San Francisco that it had opened an experimental cashierless store in Dallas in November. Shahmeer Mirza, a 7-Eleven machine learning engineer, said people can pick up what they want and walk out, much like what shoppers can do at Amazon’s Go growing chain of cashierless stores.

Computer vision technology tracks what customers take and then, in theory, ensures that they’re charged.

Meanwhile, McDonald’s said that it’s testing kiosks at a small number of U.S. restaurants that let customers order Happy Meals and shakes by talking to a digital assistant. It’s part of a broader push by McDonald’s to incorporate advances in computers that understand language into its franchises and into its mobile apps, said German Parisi, director of applied A.I. for McDonald’s research and technology unit. 

As Parsi explained, McDonald’s views A.I. “as a driving force” that can “improve the customer and employee experience.” Parsi joined McDonald’s when it bought the natural language processing startup Apprente in the fall, and he is now helping the company build a new A.I. lab in Mountain View, Calif.

For anyone waiting for 7-Eleven and McDonald’s to detail the financial rationale of their A.I. projects, this was not the time. They said little on stage about the cost or potential payoff. Instead, the companies took the opportunity to highlight their “wow, that’s cool” technology—just like Amazon, Google regularly do. But it will likely be years before 7-Eleven and McDonald’s A.I. bets pay off.

As Fortune has previously reported, consulting and analyst surveys indicate that most businesses are struggling with their A.I. projects and expect any significant financial returns to be years down the road. Moreover, in many cases, those payoffs are turning out to take far longer than initially expected.

One top data scientist from a major retailer told Fortune on the conference sidelines that it’s a big challenge for corporate data-crunching staff to convince the business-side that A.I. projects are worth it. Technologists have difficulty conveying the significance of A.I. to financial staff, who prefer business projects that increase revenue or profits in the short term.

Less tangible aspects of A.I.’s impact on a company—like helping it be perceived as technologically savvy, which can help with recruiting—are difficult for accountants to quantify.

Regardless, companies like 7-Eleven and McDonald’s, are making big A.I. bets. Although A.I.’s financial benefits are still debatable (at least in the short term), it’s clear that they don’t want to be left behind.  

Jonathan Vanian 
@JonathanVanian
jonathan.vanian@fortune.com

Major companies like McDonald’s and 7-Eleven detailed some of their A.I. projects like 7-Eleven’s new cashierless store in Dallas.Read More

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