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After Backlash, Portland-Area Outback Steakhouse Cancels New Artificial Intelligence Surveillance Test [Updated]

This month, news broke that an Outback Steakhouse location in Portland would test out the new a.i.-aided surveillance tool Presto Vision

A picture of the sign at an Outback Steakhouse
An Outback Steakhouse location in Glendale, California
Ken Wolter / Shutterstock
Brooke Jackson-Glidden is the editor of Eater Portland.

Well, that was fast: After a wave of backlash, an Outback Steakhouse in the Portland area has ditched its plans to test out a new management software aided by artificial intelligence in its lobby, according to a spokesperson from Bloomin’ Brands, Inc.

Last week, the tech magazine Wired broke the news that an Oregon-area Outback Steakhouse would manage its front of house service with the help of a.i. A new surveillance system called Presto Vision evaluates interactions between customers and employees to “empower restaurant operators to reduce operation costs and drive revenue” — in other words, to monitor employees and diners to figure out (financially beneficial) “corrections.”

The program uses surveillance cameras and machine learning to track how quickly food arrives at tables, or how often servers check on diners. The system then offers managers suggestions on how to “optimize restaurant operations” — make things more efficient. Presto Vision also alerts managers of “noteworthy events,” like when wait times run long, and can notify servers if a visitor’s water glass needs a refill. Presto Vision’s CEO, Rajat Suri, believes the system will “bring about a tectonic shift in the restaurant industry.”

The CEO of Evergreen Restaurant Group, the Outback franchisee using the pilot program, originally said the video collected would be deleted within days of being recorded, no diners’ personal information would be collected, and that they would only use Presto Vision in the lobby. Still, Wired’s Louise Matsakis argues that a program like Presto Vision could increase the stress levels of employees, or allow for diners’ data to be misused by parent companies or third parties. Matsakis wasn’t the only one with this point of view: As the story circulated, Facebook commenters and Twitter users criticized the idea of a program like Presto Vision. “In case you were wondering if our technology driven dystopia is real or not,” one tweet reads.

It’s unclear exactly which Outback Steakhouse in the Portland area planned to use this pilot program: The Wired piece attributed the move to one particular Outback Steakhouse in the Portland area, but in a recent Willamette Week piece, a manager at the Beaverton location said the program would be used in several locations throughout the state. Regardless, it doesn’t matter much now: Elizabeth Watts, director of media and community relations at the company behind Outback, says the test has been canceled. “We know our franchisee had the best of intentions when testing technology to help provide exceptional service, but we all agree that hospitality is best achieved by serving our customers’ needs in the moment,” she says in a statement.

Updated October 23 at 9:59 a.m.
This story has been updated to include the online backlash and the fact that Outback Steakhouse canceled its test of Presto Vision.

Presto Vision [Official]
At an Outback Steakhouse Franchise, Surveillance Blooms [W]
Outback Steakhouse Locations in Oregon Are Being Used to Test New Employee Surveillance Technology [WWeek]