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Restaurant Finds Workers on Autism Spectrum Are Naturals with AI

An AI restaurant ordering service company has found that people on the autism spectrum “are naturally drawn to it and naturally do incredibly well with it.” The company hopes it helps provide opportunity and purpose.

(TNS) — A Colorado Springs company that operates an AI restaurant ordering service has found that one group that struggles to find work is a great fit for a key job that keeps its technology running smoothly: people on the autism spectrum.

Synq3 Restaurant Solutions and its intelligent virtual assistant technology (or IVA for short) has been fielding phone orders placed at Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants since May 2018. Broomfield-based Noodles & Co. uses the service as well, with several other major U.S. restaurant brands expected to start using it soon, Synq3’s CEO Steve Bigari said in mid-November.

As the IVA service grows, so too does one job title at Synq3, the company’s “intent analysts.” And that means more opportunities for workers with autism.

“What we’re finding is people who are on the spectrum are naturally drawn to it and naturally do incredibly well with it,” Bigari said of the positions, launched earlier this year.

Analysts help the automated voice ordering system interpret the wide world of human speech. If someone is placing an order in a loud room, speaking in a thick Chicago accent or using phrasing that IVA doesn’t understand right away, it appeals to an analyst for help. The system displays a handful of options of what it thinks the customer is saying on the analyst’s screen, the analyst listens to a digital whisper of the word or phrase and picks the right option. It all happens within a few seconds so the ordering process moves along smoothly.

“Chipotle is a great example because many people mispronounce chorizo,” Bigari said. “A normal voice assistant would just fail. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t understand. Please repeat that. I’m sorry. I don’t understand. Please repeat that.’ And then you’re throwing your phone out the window. What happens here is it gets an immediate feedback loop.”

Bigari developed the intent analyst job alongside Kevin Reiss, Synq3’s human resources director. Both expected it to be a good fit for people with autism.

Bigari’s 19-year-old daughter, Anna, is on the spectrum. The responsibilities of the job fit the skill set of atypical people like her, he said: fond of detail-oriented work, repetition and instant feedback like scorekeeping but not adept at interpersonal interaction or comfortable dealing with customers face to face. She joined the company in June as its fourth-ever intent analyst. It the first job she’s had.

Nearly half of people with autism reach the age of 25 without ever holding a paying position, according to statistics on the website for Autism Speaks, an advocacy organization.

“I feel like I have a purpose,” Anna Bigari said while taking a break during a recent shift at Synq’s headquarters. “Before, I was just lounging around the house. Here, I make friends. I help people over the phone even though I don’t talk to them.”

She is particularly fond of an internal messaging service that allows Synq3 employees to give each other kudos.

Automation is often looked at as an employment boogeyman, snatching jobs for human workers and giving them to machines. That not the case with Synq3, Steve Bigari said. The company got started as a call center in 2002, fielding drive-through orders placed at McDonald’s restaurants. In the early 2000s, it employed around 50 people. Today it has over 800 employees either working at its office at Mark Dabling Boulevard in Colorado Springs or in their homes.

The company employs about 50 intent analysts and expects to add many more as its operation scales up. Pay starts at $11.75 an hour, but that figure is expected to rise, Bigari said.

Seventeen of those employees were referred to the company through the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. The division and Gov. Jared Polis recognized the company for its work at an awards ceremony in October. The job is not reserved for people with disabilities, Bigari said.

Dave Boennighausen, CEO of Noodles & Co., has autism in his family. He considers Synq3 one of the state’s most innovative companies.

“With the labor situation that we have today with unemployment at historic lows, they’ve created an absolute win-win,” he said.”It’s not just solving the labor challenge but also providing opportunities for a workforce that is particularly well-suited to provide a superior work.”

Anna Bigari is as excited as her father to see the program keep growing.

“I think there’s a lot of hope if we keep doing what we’re doing, because this job is really made for people like me who are atypical,” she said, “people who stand out.”

©2019 The Denver Post. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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