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Starbucks gets personal with virtual baristas as part of AI push

Clint Boulton | Jan. 9, 2017
The coffee company is joining the likes of Domino’s Pizza, and several other companies in launching virtual assistant technology to in hopes of a more personalized customer experience.

Credit: poolie

Add Starbucks to the cadre of companies trying to boost sales with artificial intelligent based assistants. The coffee company this year will let you to place orders via voice command or messaging to a virtual barista, the next step on its journey to better personalize customer service

Starbucks CTO Gerri Martin-Flickinger introduced the My Starbucks Barista, a new feature in the Starbucks mobile app, in a video demonstration during the company's December investor meeting. In the video, a woman spoke to her phone to order a highly customized espresso beverage. The virtual barista responded to each voice command with text messaging prompts. The technology will roll out in selected regions first on iOS in a beta in early 2017 and be made available to more iOS and Android users on a rolling basis.

sbux barista 
My Starbucks Barista, a new feature in the Starbucks mobile app, is designed to let you use your  phone to order a highly customized beverage. Credit: Starbucks (Click for larger image.) 

Starbucks joins Domino's Pizza and Taco Bell in the crowded field of quick-service companies providing virtual assistant technology via voice and messaging. Other enterprises such as FedEx and Capital One are trying to facilitate a better customer experience by embracing's Alexa technology. Forrester Research says that percent of the Fortune 500 is using chatbots of some form is climbing, with 31 percent planning to deploy one this year.

Steep learning curves for virtual barista

Starbucks has its work cut out for it in ensuring a solid user experience, given how much consumers challenge human baristas with beverage order customization. That may require consumers to learn to curb their ordering vocabulary, says Forrester Research analyst Julie Ask.

"Think about the number of times you've been in a Starbucks... let alone that it is a noisy environment," Ask tells "The human being listens, repeats, ensures he/she has the right order based on corrections from the consumer. The human asks for missing information: What kind of milk? How many shots of hazelnut syrup? What size? It's still quite hard to give an open-ended order to a machine.”

Ask adds that if Starbucks allows consumers to place open-ended orders that don't require six follow-up questions to clarify they’ll have “done something really impressive.” 

Starbucks' assistant builds on an AI approach the company is using to jumpstart personalization for a rewards program that, while successful, had been surprisingly low-tech. Martin-Flickinger, who joined the company from Adobe in 2015, says that the company was hand-crafting about 30 variants of rewards offers in spreadsheets until early 2016.


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