The annus horribilis that was 2016 is finally over. As we enter the brave new world that is 2017, the kind folks at KFC have found a way to let us do less thinking and more handing over of our personal data to multinational companies.
Setting a weird tone for the year to come, Chinese internet giant Baidu has partnered with Big Chicken baron KFC, installing at its Financial Street Central Plaza location a facial recognition machine, which predicts what meal you might like to order based on your gender, age, mood and other apparently appetite-determining characteristics. You can then pay at the machine via WeChat or Alipay, and collect your meal at the counter moments later.
Intrigued and hungry, Time Out headed over to see what the Colonel had to offer a chicken connoisseur in search of some finger-lickin’ artificial intelligence.
After the press release had said that a man might be offered a 'crispy chicken hamburger, roasted chicken wings and a coke', while a woman might get 'porridge and soybean milk for breakfast', we were all pumped up for some feminist outrage at being offered a diet soft drink or perhaps one chip. Instead, we witnessed a hangry woman be offered the chicken burger set meal, as was the male member of staff who demonstrated the machine. If you’re not happy with the meal they first suggest, you can click through to see a few other suggestions. It's basically a menu, but shorter!
As the lunchtime rush of nearby office workers poured in, we staked out a spot to see if everyone else would also be offered chicken burgers. We didn’t get to find out, because in nearly an hour in a restaurant with dozens of customers, not one person gave the machine a second glance. They all just headed straight for the counter and ordered what they wanted, paid for it, and ate it, which we would have guessed is the reason why most people come to KFC.
Undeterred, we harangued a couple of bystanders into trying out the machine. One woman was offered a chicken wrap meal, which she had no interest in, while one middle-aged man was offered a chicken soup set meal: 'I had that yesterday, and didn’t like it'.
Some of the reports about this new technology have raised concerns about what KFC and Baidu will do with customers’ data. 'If the consumer visits the store again and takes a picture with the machine, it will be able to recognise his or her face and show the previous purchase history, remember the customer’s dining habits, and help to place an order faster,' said Wu Zhongqin, deputy director of the Institute of Deep Learning at Baidu, which helped to develop the technology.
A diner we spoke to was nonplussed at the prospect. 'If it knows what food I want, great.' Other customers seemed similarly unconcerned, but said that they would be too busy to use the machine.
Is facial recognition the future for fried chicken? Probably not. But at the lunchtime rush hour, it’s one way to beat the queues at the counter.