Alibaba Unveils AI Technology for Cafés and Restaurants

On May 23, Alibaba Machine Intelligence Technologies unveiled its latest intelligent speech interaction technology aimed at “smart ordering” in cafés and restaurants.

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The Alibaba DAMO Academy unit, which focuses on fundamental AI research, said the new technology lets buyers, for example, order their coffee by speaking to a smart ordering machine. The machine will understand their requests and display the order onscreen in a split second. Buyers can correct their orders as many times as they want, and the machine is expected to catch all the changes and update immediately.

For example, a customer might say: “I want to order two large cups of Americano. Oh, please make them with less sugar. To go. And sorry. That should be three cups, two large and one small.” The smart ordering machine will then display the full order as two large cups and one small cup of Americano, all with less sugar than usual and note that it’s for takeout.

AI ordering v.s. regular ordering

Smart ordering is possible through the team’s latest research in spoken language understanding (SLU), a field that involves both speech processing and natural language processing. First, the team develops a multi-modal speech interaction solution that can capture both voice and visual features, taking into account such things as the speaker’s pace, pauses between words, pronunciation, breaths and facial expression. Next, the team builds a reinforcement-learning model that allows for revisions and intent detection. All are important in the SLU field, making it possible to apply the latest SLU technology into commercial use.

Yan Zhijie, Head of Intelligent Speech Interaction at Alibaba Machine Intelligence Technologies, said: “Our multi-modal speech interaction solution, underpinned by our insights in spoken language understanding, can be used in different scenarios including food and beverage ordering, customer service, voice commands for home appliances and in smart cars, and voice response to inquiries in shopping malls or airports.“ Yan added, “With the smart ordering machine as a perfect example, we believe the solution would greatly enhance the customer experience and make running a business more efficient.”

In December last year, Alibaba also introduced the far-field voice-recognition technology to ticketing kiosks in Shanghai metro stations. The smart ticketing kiosks allow passengers to use their voices to tell the kiosks their destination, and the machines will recommend the best route.

smart ordering

The smart ordering machine is expected to roll out to the market in the next few months, and the technology solution will be available on Alibaba Cloud to benefit small and medium-size enterprises. The solution is currently only available in Mandarin Chinese.