The algorithmic risks of ordering a cheeseburger

By Katrina Ingram, CEO, Ethically Aligned AI



Until recently, the risks of ordering a cheeseburger at your local mom and pop diner might have been thought about mostly in dietary terms. Yet, COVID-19 has shifted business practices for many small businesses. One trend that’s quickly being adopted is the use of QR codes in restaurants to replace menus.

QR codes, or quick response codes, are machine readable labels that are similar to a barcode. A user scans the code with their smartphone and is linked to information online. QR codes in restaurants are the entry point to enabling fully digital contactless ordering systems.


The appeals of moving to this technology are numerous. COVID-19 measures have prompted businesses to reduce points of contact for shared items, such physical menus or even interactions with staff. A QR code provides a ready solution. There may also be advantages in streamlining the ordering process, which would help address the staffing issues many small businesses in the service sector are facing. Plus, all the data and metadata can be served up to the restaurant and analyzed to help refine future offerings.


From Kitchen to Table via the Cloud


In the most basic of scenarios at a small restaurant, when we order food, we look at a menu and we talk to a person to place our order. They may write our order on a notepad. That order is given to the kitchen who makes our food and the food is delivered to our table. That is the algorithm, or set of steps, in this non-digital process. The key stakeholders in this scenario are the customer, the restaurant staff and management of the restaurant. In a chain restaurant or bigger establishment, we may also have an internal digital system that tracks the orders.


By introducing QR codes, restaurants expose themselves and their customers to a new set of supply chain risks. It’s not always clear how much information is being gathered and tracked when we scan a QR code. Data, including our order and other types of digital IDs or or meta data, is now moving through a digital system. That app is typically made and managed by a third party using cloud-based technology. The third party app provider will likely have it’s own set of partners and vendors. This creates a new, invisible chain of suppliers connected to the restaurant and its customers. Olo is a company that’s been at the forefront of this shift to digital ordering. They power the digital infrastructure of hundreds of restaurant chains including Denny’s, Applebees and Jamba Juice and are preparing for a $300M+ IPO


A new twist on food safety


Instead of remaining relatively anonymous at our local diner, QR codes and the contactless ordering system can link people to a chain of digital events through their data. That data can be stored, aggregated, repackaged and sold. Imagine if your insurance company knew how many cheeseburgers you were ordering on a regular basis? Insurance companies are already using “non-traditional sources of data”, such as selfie data from smokers, to determine who has access to certain products and at what price.


Or perhaps your mom and pop diner has joined a public health initiative to promote healthy eating habits. Based on your prior order history, some inferences have been made that suggest you could benefit from a healthy options intervention. The digital menu decides to “nudge” you towards some better choices. The QR code menu app is now recommending all of the salads first, making it that much harder to get to that cheeseburger you really want. In a small way, your autonomy is being impacted.


Beyond individual impacts, there are bigger societal questions. Automation often brings job loss. Just as automated banking resulted in the loss of jobs for tellers, digital ordering systems can replace front of house wait staff. There are the usual concerns around data breaches from bad actors and how our data might be used in nefarious ways. Finally, there are also questions about implementing a techno-solutioning mindset into every aspect of our lives. Do we really need these layers of technology to mediate everything we do? Who benefits most in these scenarios?


What can be done?


As customers, we can ask ourselves to what degree to wish to participate in digital systems. Businesses, especially small businesses, are typically responsive to customer demands, so we can make our voices heard.


As a restaurant owner, we can critically evaluate the technology solutions we adopt. Are they really necessary? Have we selected partners with good track records and solid data protection processes in place? What about reputational risks if the app we use is hacked or it’s found that data is being used in ways that are harmful to certain groups of people? Perhaps the resources to put in place this type of evaluation and oversight is not within our means as a small business.


As a technology solution provider, we can examine if we’re building our systems in ways that protect end users and take into account ethical principles such as promoting autonomy and well-being while ensuring we don’t cause harm. We can also look at our incentive structures. For example, are we selling data and is that a conflict of interest that leads to misaligned incentives?


These are big questions we need to grapple with in our increasingly digital world, even while doing something as seemingly innocuous as ordering a cheeseburger.


Ethically Aligned AI is a social enterprise aimed at helping organizations make better choices about designing and deploying technology. Find out more at ethicallyalignedai.com


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