By   Abhijit Roy       December 10, 2022

The food industry, specially fast foods and restaurants are poised for a major technology transformation that ranges from robotic services to electronic tongue that transmits taste across the Internet. Researchers at IBM Research have developed HyperTaste, a tool for chemical taste sensing. It acts as an “electronic tongue”—a sensor that analyzes the chemical composition of liquids. McDonalds has forayed into the metaverse this year, to deliver a new kind of experience to its consumers. Ericsson’s R&D is already working on 6G that will usher the Internet of Senses that promises to engage the sense of touch and smell through the Internet.

The future of fast food involves a variety of players, such as global quick service restaurant (QSR chains) moving the industry forward (McDonald’s, Chipotle), tech leaders providing digital services (Google, Meta), and robotics manufacturers pairing software and hardware to automate operations (Hyundai, Nuro). Through strategic relationships, these companies will work together to create the future of fast food that expands beyond the boundaries of the brick-and-mortar restaurant. Beyond these players, companies throughout the restaurant and food service industry will be impacted by the future of fast food. Examples include food suppliers (Tyson Foods, JBS) and food service companies (Sodexo, Compass), as well as last-mile delivery companies (DoorDash, Deliveroo).

Social media listening and Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies will radically transform the industry. A CD Insights report writes that the future, restaurants will be able to create and test new menu items in a faster, less wasteful, and more cost-efficient way. Combining AI tongues and social listening, restaurants can identify early trends as well as tweak recipes and menus to grow revenue.

AI to replicate how humans perceive taste

AI tongues and social listening are separate technologies that can work together to speed up R&D. AI tongues use sensors and artificial intelligence to replicate how humans will perceive a taste — allowing for rapid taste tests without relying on human subjects. Social listening technology taps into consumer sentiment conveyed in social media posts, online reviews, and other forms of digital content to generate actionable insights about what new ingredients, flavors, or habits might be gaining popularity.

By combining these solutions, restaurants can predict what new items will gain traction with consumers and hone recipes and flavors that are likely to appeal to a broad variety of tastes. Detecting these new consumer habits early on can also help restaurants adapt other considerations beyond taste, including opening hours, layout, and category offerings.

Rising costs of supplies, labor, and rent have put a squeeze on the restaurant industry’s already slim profit margins. To succeed in this challenging macroeconomic environment, investing in tech solutions that can boost profit margins, increase loyalty, and maximize productivity is more important than ever. At the same time, the Covid-19 pandemic has shifted diners’ habits: today, upwards of 80% of fast food is estimated to be consumed off-premise via drive-thru or delivery.

The Metaverse a digital channel for restaurants

This signals how the fast food industry is changing and poses an opportunity for players to rethink how brick-and-mortar locations are being optimized to address consumer demand. In 2030, the metaverse will be a new digital channel for restaurants to offer engaging, interactive experiences that boost brand awareness and customer experience. In the metaverse, customers can step into a virtual restaurant to browse menus, meet friends, and even order real food that will then be delivered to their door. restaurants will be able to build virtual experiences, offer exclusive menu items or digital merchandise, and host virtual events for customers.

HyperTaste – giving computers a sense of taste

Is it possible to give computers a sense of taste? This was the question that motivated researchers at IBM Research to develop HyperTaste, a tool for chemical taste sensing. It acts as an “electronic tongue”—a sensor that analyzes the chemical composition of liquids.

“HyperTaste was inspired by advances in AI and machine learning to mimic human senses like sight and hearing for recognizing images and interpreting speech. Big Blue wanted to present a new lens for chemical sensing.

The idea was to apply a combinatorial approach using an array of sensors—much like the thousands of taste buds on our tongues—and then employ machine-learning algorithms to interpret the output of those sensors. The team used a printed circuit board with microcontroller-based hardware and an assembly of 16 conductive polymeric sensors that change their voltage when dipped in a solution.

Despite its operational simplicity, HyperTaste was not easy to develop. Bringing the various parts of the system together as well as merging an interdisciplinary team consisting of electrochemists and material scientists to determine HyperTaste’s sensing principle, electrical engineers to define and assemble the hardware, and software engineers for the data science and deployment side proved challenging. HyperTaste was first developed in 2019, but it was able to work only with a few specific liquids. Now, it can analyze much more complex liquids.“

McDonalds using Virtual Reality

McDonald’s made an entrance into the metaverse with a Chinese Lunar New Year event. Partnering with AltspaceVR and Spatial, the brand designed a hall of Chinese zodiacs that players could explore through VR. The QSR giant has also filed trademark applications that suggest a virtual restaurant may be opening soon that sells both virtual and actual goods with home delivery.

Robotic Food Preparation

According to a CB Insights report, existing and emerging technologies in robotics, AI, and digital engagement technology can not only help restaurants streamline operational processes, but also create personalized, seamless brand experiences for fast food customers. The future will see the emergence of fast food restaurants that have adapted their store layouts to rely exclusively on robotic food preparation to cook menu items. Robots will work in sync to fill orders, account for customer substitutions, and communicate with autonomous delivery vehicles to quickly bring customers fresh, accurate orders.

Restaurant tech to reach US$6.5 billion

Improving the customer experience will help restaurants grow and maintain loyalty in the competitive restaurant landscape. In turn, solutions that help offset restaurants’ key operating costs are gaining traction, with 2022 funding for restaurant tech projected to reach more than $6.5 billion — which would surpass 2021 and be more than double the amount raised in 2020. As the future of fast food begins to take shape, laggards will be left behind compared to competitors that have been proactive about exploring these new technologies.

The food and restaurant industry is already logging on to conversational AI and AI-powered recommendation engines trying to make ordering food more human-friendly, accessible, and convenient. These technologies will be able to power drivethrus, smart speakers, apps, and even metaverse avatars, allowing customers to simply speak their order wherever they may be while the restaurant makes hyper-relevant recommendations that can increase order value.

Meanwhile, the applications of conversational AI for restaurants are not limited to just drive-thrus — the tech could also be used for customer-facing interfaces like phone and SMS orders, voice assistants, and mobile apps. Domino’s has partnered with ConverseNow which provides conversational AI for phone orders. After an order is placed through ConverseNow’s software, which is integrated with the existing point-of-sale system, employees can immediately see the order and prepare it.

The future of fast food will center around automation and digitization solutions that increase productivity, boost profits, and enhance customer engagement. By combining technologies like AI and robotics, restaurants can provide personalized recommendations, fresher and more accurate orders, and faster delivery.