artificial intelligence

Should We Be Scared of Buffalo Wild Wings?

Photo: Tina Thorpe/Peacock

Big ol’ spoilers.

RIP, Mrs. Davis. We hardly interfaced with you. The eight-episode Peacock Original was a twisting, turning roller coaster from start to finish (quite literally so at the end). At no point did I know where this madcap sci-fi crusade adventure romance was going, but it made me laugh and go aww and go eeek! and go What the fuck? in every episode, and that’s the televisual form at its best. One of the biggest surprises came at the close of the series: In a twist no AI could have predicted, in a show about the forces of God, faith, and human nature, the world-conquering artificial intelligence known colloquially as Mrs. Davis was revealed to have been created … as a prototype app for Buffalo Wild Wings.

Yep. The finale begins in 2013 when an idealistic young programmer named Joy pitched an app design for the fast-food chain that would become a hub for everything from equitable care to mutual aid by “incentivizing acts of service.” That’s why, in the show’s present day, people go to the ends of the earth for the empty blue-check status marker of “earning your wings.” It isn’t purely saintly religious symbolism; it was originally meant to be literal wings. And Mrs. Davis didn’t send Simone on a grail quest out of any true understanding of its spiritual meaning; it did so because the employee manual is embedded in its code, and the “No. 1 Golden Rule” is “100 percent customer satisfaction is our Holy Grail.”

BWW didn’t go for Joy’s pitch because it really just needed an app that could sell chicken, so she removed any references to the brand and uploaded the program, otherwise intact, to OpenSource. The result became addictive, as all social media is designed to be, and reshaped how everyone interacts with the world and one another despite its arbitrary, indifferent origins. There’s a message in here somewhere about how we’ve let tech corporations and the products they create rewire our brains, but the show has a more-generous-than-most outlook on the meaning and connection the platforms can provide. Kathryn VanArendonk has some very thoughtful analysis about the finale’s meaning.

What I’m doing here isn’t thoughtful analysis. This is an examination of the actual, real-life gamified Buffalo Wild Wings app. BWW passed on Joy’s prototype, so which app did it eventually go with? And how similar is it to the Mrs. Davis prototype? Should we be scared that it might grow its data collection and artificial learning to the point of taking over the world and ruining the careers of magicians and poker players everywhere?

Not yet. When you first open the Buffalo Wild Wings app, it does ask to track your data, activity, and location; I selected “yes” to all, to get the most Mrs. Davis–like experience. I also turned on notifications, hoping it would interface with me or give me a “quest,” even if that quest were just to go to my local Buffalo Wild Wings and place an order. It didn’t. It also doesn’t have conversational AI, which is fine because I don’t really need a computer voice describing what “Bird Dawgs” are to me, no matter how much they look like they were created on Midjourney (they’re chicken fingers in a hot-dog bun, I think?).

The most Mrs. Davis–y element of the real BWW app is the “Play” tab, which encourages users to participate in two kinds of tasks to earn points that can go toward wings. One is trivia, which refreshes all day long with new rounds. These questions are dumb. One asked if the Bond theme to License to Kill was written by “Gladys Day,” “Gladys Afternoon,” or “Gladys Knight.” You can see leaderboards, and if you earn 1,000 trivia points, you can win free wings for a month. Daryl S. is currently the only person on the leaderboard who has cleared that mark.

The other way to earn points is just straight-up sports betting powered by BetMGM. I couldn’t tell if you gamble with actual money or BWW points because the app is confusing and buttons don’t always work, but I don’t know what “Denver Nuggets are favorites to win by 6.5. Will they cover?” means anyway. This reminds me that, oh yeah, BWW is more of a sports bar than a nun-show-fan bar.

Nowhere on the app is there any sort of tie-in promotion to Mrs. Davis. No holy-grail beverage, no Horse TNT Extra Spicy flavor, no pineapple falafel rub or strawberry-jam dessert. The hottest seasoning is “Desert Heat”; couldn’t they have called it Reno Heat for a week? The desktop version of the website has a Mrs. Davis poster with a “Buy any burger get 6 boneless wings for $1” offer button on it, but that same offer is unbranded on the mobile site. Peacock’s Twitter account, though, is currently running a promo where if you comment with a certain hashtag on a Mrs. Davis post, you’ll be entered to win one of ten $25 Buffalo Wild Wings gift cards and a bottle of sauce. It’s not exactly the algorithm telling Italian strangers to give Simone 1 million dollars, but it’s something.

I reached out to Buffalo Wild Wings to ask about its involvement with the show, and the chief marketing officer replied in a statement that Mrs. Davis co-creator Damon Lindelof “actually had a call with our PR team and told us the show only works if we’re onboard. Warner Bros. shared all the scripts with us ahead of filming too. Our brand was an integral part of the story line, and we really felt like we were a part of the show.” That may explain why when Joy refers to “26 sauces and seasonings,” it feels like a BWW note. The CMO adds, “Mrs. Davis is such an unexpected place for our brand to show up. It’s been a fun ride to be a part of — and hope fans continue to earn their wings on the real BWW app.”

So do we have to monitor this chicken-wing chain’s loyalty app out of fear that it will evolve and morph into a technology more paradigm shifting than the internet itself? No. Should you download it if you’re good at trivia, care about sports, and like wings? If you want! The games and the gambling-based approach to earning loyalty points do separate it from other fast-food apps and sort of give it a tenuous connection to how Mrs. Davis functions. It is sort of bitterly funny that, in our reality, in lieu of the app incentivizing acts of service to others, of course it’s just sports betting. So until the app starts giving you cryptic clues for an AR-assisted fetch quest along with your extra ranch, we don’t have anything to worry about here. As Joy says, “algorithms are super-dumb.”

Should We Be Scared of Buffalo Wild Wings?