If you have ever wondered what the worlds of retail and restaurants would look like with voice-assisted technology, it might not be long before Mai comes to a store or restaurant near you.
Mai is the brainchild of Derrick Johnson and it enables both restaurant and retail experiences to be faster, friendlier, and more efficient. It is one of the world’s most advanced artificial intelligence assistants, responding to customers instantly at the drive-thru and allowing team members to focus on higher level tasks.
In this interview, Derrick shares how he first got interested in artificial intelligence (AI) technology, his first job in fast food, and what the broader landscape of both retail and restaurants will look like in the next decade.
Encounter AI leverages voice technology to make restaurant and retail experiences faster, friendlier and more efficient. Encounter AI continues to win awards and accolades and has been featured in American Inno, Interesting Engineering, and Business Journal.
Prior to Encounter, Derrick spent time as a restaurant owner as well as a Senior Data Architect and Analytics Engineering Lead at companies including SAP Concur, WageWorks, and Accenture.
Danni White: What first got you interested in artificial intelligence technology?
Derrick Johnson: I became interested in artificial intelligence as a consultant for one of the Big 4. I worked within their research and innovation division, where I was charged with understanding how technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Diverse Data, and Xtended Reality would transform industries globally. I led research and developed technology prototypes to disrupt existing markets daily. This began my journey to Encounter AI.
DW: Tell us about your experience as a fast food employee and how it helped you to think about the end users’ experiences?
DJ: My first job when I was a teenager was at McDonald’s. I remember as a teenager it being hard keeping up with changing orders and customers’ demands. You needed to be able to connect the dots. It was hard on me as a worker and since then as a consumer, I see the same challenges or worsening challenges. Then, there are the struggles of delivering consistent customer service when you had several moving parts. As I began envisioning a new experience, I sought to create an experience where both the customers and employees could be happy with each transaction.
DW: How is Mai different from a human providing the same services?
DJ: Mai is different from a human in the same way a librarian is different than Google. While Google doesn’t replace the human touch, there is only so much information a human can process without impacting the time and consistency of the customer experience. By augmenting the customer experience with a machine, we can connect systems that help provide more information faster for complex orders and transactions (i.e. food allergies, items out of stock, etc.) while delivering a consistent experience at scale.
DW: What does your technology stack look like and how does it capture retail- or restaurant-specific tones and contexts?
DJ: Our technology stack mirrors the technology of an existing drive-thru today, meaning it has speakers, communication interfaces, and point of sale systems. Our secret sauce is that we integrate a digital voice experience, similar to the way people communicate with their phones and in their homes, but this is designed for business environments.
In restaurants, this allows us to capture your favorite sandwich even though you called it by the nickname even with a truck honking or kids yelling in the background. We also handle your order modifications while still allowing you to “have it your way.” So, if you order two buns we can adapt to those nuances that are unique to those industries.
While we have started with restaurants, the same technology can be applied to retail. The concept of connecting inventory and point of sale systems while efficiently delivering high-quality customer experiences is a pain point that is not unique to restaurant owners.
DW: What do you think the broader landscape of retail and restaurant looks like over the next decade?
DJ: Within ten years, I see retail going back to the forum style, where the experiential experience is the reason people head to those next-generation stores. After all, people want to interact and be around others when they leave their homes and venture into the public to interact.
For restaurants, I envision a landscape where customers enjoy five-star experiences and service like they enjoy quick service at casual restaurants today.
DW: What are some of your future plans for Encounter AI?
DJ: Our goal at Encounter AI is to create the technology layer that allows everyone to have impeccable one-to-one experiences regardless of the business size. We accomplish that by building relationships with restaurant, retail, and technology partners to create the world that we know everyone deserves.
DW: Where do you see artificial intelligence technology headed in the next five years?
DJ: Artificial Intelligence is still nascent, where we are just now seeing tangible benefits. Within five years, I see it becoming more of a utility where underestimated and underrepresented sectors can leverage it to drive the communal outcomes they want as well. This includes streamlining food distribution, teaching, healthcare, and social services.