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What if a machine helped you make a dinner reservation? In some ways, most of us already do that when we book a dinner reservation with OpenTable. The app makes it seem like it isn’t machine learning making it all possible, although we likely get a hint of cognitive power behind how it all works. Really, we’re just hoping to meet for business at a seafood restaurant in Mill Valley north of the Golden Gate Bridge. We might not care if there is an AI involved; what we care about is whether there is a table available.

At MB 2017, the CEO of OpenTable, Christa Quarles, explained how this all works, and also where it is all heading from here. The short answer: more automation and more personalization. When an AI understands us and adapts to us — when it knows we like to sit by the window and tend to prefer lobster to steak — it is much more useful.

You might say that as AI becomes more powerful, it becomes less noticeable. Quarles explained that the goal is make AI as powerful as possible and as personal as possible. The user wants personalization. Only the tech elite wants to know how it all works.

Quarles said AI helps optimize the search results when you want to make a reservation. For data compilation, OpenTable sees mobile devices as a big driver — it’s a rich data set to improve AI.


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“People don’t want to spend more than two or three minutes [making a reservation], and they want to be confident they made the right decision,” she said, suggesting that this large data set can make AI better and improve the results of search and the reservations.

Alexa is a good example. It is transactional today using the OpenTable skill. You state what you need and the bot responds. Someday, it will be more relational. Alexa will know what you usually like. And it might even know that your dinner guests definitely don’t like steak.

Quarles said OpenTable wants to be “significantly more comprehensive,” and machine learning is what makes that possible. She wants users to know what is going on, what is in season, what is trendy — there is a wealth of real-time data and a rich marketplace. She said there should be no other choice when it comes to reservations.

That’s the real difference with AI — it makes the process personal, fast, and valuable. Next time you meet for a lobster dinner with friends who don’t like steak, keep that in mind.