Artificial Intelligence: The Future of Retail and Hospitality

Interesting Engineering interviewed Encounter AI's CEO, Derrick Johnson, to learn about Mai, an AI solution that provides accessibility for the blind and transforms retail and hospitality as we know them.

Artificial Intelligence: The Future of Retail and Hospitality
Unsplash, photo by Terry Jaskiw

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) are rapidly changing the way things work, how, and how much we work. This is increasingly noticeable in restaurant ordering and in retail as well as in other industries. Both the retail and the hospitality industries are going to see tremendous innovation and change in the next few years.

Most recently, contributing to this change, Encounter AI created Mai, the world's most advanced voice ordering assistant for retailers and restaurants that also provides accessibility for the blind. 

Encounter Artificial Intelligence creates Mai: A solution that provides accessibility for the blind 

Encounter AI was founded in September 2018 when the company's CEO and co-founder Derrick Johnson decided to take his experience as a former fast-food employee and investor to create a solution that could be able to simplify ordering.

Johnson's initial idea was focused on many people he knew who have serious food allergies and have experienced trouble ordering at restaurants. Johnson, together with COO and co-founder, and Solutions Consultant Kabah Condaalso thought about providing accessbility for the blind.  

"Mai uses voice technology to make restaurant experiences faster, friendlier, and more efficient," Derrick Johnson tells Interesting Engineering. 

According to the company, Mai is the world's most advanced Artificial Intelligence voice-enabled ordering assistant for restaurants and retail. 

"When we look at technology-driven experiences for individuals with visual impairment, voice and sound-based devices have long been used to augment their daily lives, for instance, audio labeling or acoustic traffic signals. Similarly, these individuals can now leverage voice first technology to transact in on-premise stores. Ensuring an equitable experience for all," Johnson explains. 

According to Johnson, Mai is different from a human providing this service in the same way the Internet is different from an intelligent person; it can quickly and efficiently handle complex situations like a visually impaired person who might have dietary restrictions. Mai can quickly process that information, only offering items that fit their requirements, and without extending the time of the transaction.

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Mai is a vocal commerce solution that provides accessibility for the blind while improving order accuracy, service and speed. Encounter AI is an Artificial Intelligence company aimed at improving the retail experience. Their first product, Mai, compiles customers orders instantly via drive-thru, freeing staff to focus on higher value tasks.

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Derrick Johnson conceptualized the solution after having a first-hand glimpse of the industry’s struggles with high staff turnover, skyrocketing labor costs, and inconsistent customer experience. “I saw first hand the operational struggles caused by restaurants being behind the times technologically,” says Johnson. “I wanted to develop a solution that gave restaurateurs a fighting chance.”

According to the company, Mai is the first comprehensive on-premise voice solution for restaurants and retailers. Inclusive to all ages and disability friendly, the tool integrates into a restaurants’ point of sale to not only take customer orders instantly but also to answer all of their questions. The solution can be customized in the tone and style of the establishment’s choice maintaining the brand's distinctive personality. 

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Mai uses advanced Machine Learning when it collects orders and has more conversations with the customers. Mai becomes more intuitive over time, remembering customers preferences to offer them targeted products and new promotions in future visits. 

"In regards to technology we leverage Machine Learning, Natural Language Processing (NLP), Natural Language Understanding (NLU), and a combination of text classification engines," says Johnson. "Our technology stack allows us to capture and respond to the subtle nuances, idiosyncrasies, and contexts that occur in real-world conversations." 

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Encounter AI has made the solution widely accessible. Currently, Mai is serving in an assortment of point of sale systems including XPIENT, Oracle Micros, Par, Brink POS, Positouch, and Aloha. The team also prides itself in offering ongoing support to owners - taking care of technical operations so owners can focus on running their businesses. 

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The evolution and future of drive-thru restaurant jobs

"We are already seeing a new phase of jobs where workers co-exist amongst assistive intelligence technologies, like warehouses using electronic pickers. In the restaurant industry we are already using a machine, a register, to capture your order and track inventory, we are just making that machine smarter," Derrick Johnson tells Interesting Engineering. 

Johnson explains that the machine will now be capable of processing audio information and workers will be focused on skilled jobs, like cooking or providing high levels of service.

"We are bringing voice technology to existing hardware to help to deliver the same experience people are used to getting from a smart home, smart car, or smartphone," he says.

He compares the collaboration of human + machine to workers having an Iron Man suit. Johnson says that each job will encompass a combination of human and machine technologies unique in design and purpose to achieve specific business outcomes.

Welcome to the future: A new face and voice for drive-thru restaurants

Let's have a quick look back at the history of drive-thrus and see how things were back then.

The first drive-in restaurant opened in 1921 in Dallas, Texas. Customers would pull up, order, and eat right from the comfort of their car. It was the time when the car culture was starting to bloom. 

By the 1950s, road trips were increasingly popular, and drive-ins offer both speed and convenience. It was in the 1970s when McDonald's adopted the Drive-Thru. There are still some Drive-ins in some parts of the United States. They looked like this: 

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Now, fast-forward to the present and back to Mai. As we see, a lot has changed.  

Mai is currently being piloted at several drive-thru restaurants throughout the Midwest in the United States. According to the company, Encounter AI bridges analytics, labor, inventory, and customer loyalty to bring an enhanced and smoother drive-thru experience. 

Encounter AI installs on-premise hardware for POS integration. Customers can change their mind about the order and Mai will fix the change. Payments can be made safely by voice activation. Here below is a demo showing how Mai works. The demo uses the actual voice of the application. This is the present and future of drive-ins: 

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The future of retail and restaurants 

Mai's territory is not going to be limited to restaurants only. “Our goal for the product is to expand from restaurants to retail,” says Derrick Johnson. “Within five years we want to be the de-facto voice interface for on-premise commerce globally.” 

"Today the average worker can't scale or adapt quick enough to the enormous demands of the digital native consumer. With Mai, workers have the ability to augment their service in near real-time to exceed customer demands," says Johnson. 

He explains how with the emergence of automated beverage machines these machines can begin fulfilling the order once a worker confirmed it at the table. These combinations of technologies enable small crews of workers to provide exceptional service at scale. 

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"The reason people are still going in the store is because they like the human touch. I don't see that human touch completely changing but I do think customers are demanding that restaurant and retail service levels rise to what they expect of online retailing," says Johnson. 

By the year 2025, the world is going to function in a much different way than today. The next five years are going to be crucial in preparing humanity for the change through adopting new skills.

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"Retail customers are already demanding a hyper-personalized experience. Today retailer's are losing customers because they haven't found a strategy to service the customer already has everything at their fingertips," Johnson tells Interesting Engineering.

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"Our vision for the future of retail is to bring this hyper-personalized experience in-store. Similar to how technology is reshaping the last mile of transportation [with digital bikes and scooters, for example], we envision a similar paradigm changing retail [with] digital customer service and fulfillment, experiential commerce," he says.  

As AI takes over the more repetitive jobs, more humans need to upgrade their skills and prepare for the new jobs that will be created, some of which don't exist yet. Some of which are yet unimaginable.

"Workers are already being trained to provide high-quality customer service as well as being trained to use the current technology, register, inventory system in their respective locations. Mai is here to help the associate leverage information that may be residing in multiple systems today, provide better, faster customer service," says Johnson.

"For example, Chic-Fil-A is repeatedly acknowledge for their service in the fast food industry. The primary focus for the staff is second mile service, essentially going above and beyond for the customer. The automation technology they've invested into seamlessly assemble food frees the staff for such interactions and is a great example of how human plus automation can drive better customer experiences, Johnson explains. 

Today, not enough humans have the skills required for the demands and jobs of the future where humans will have to work and interact more with automation. Yet, the world is going to need more human talent to create, manage, and supervise everything that is going to exist in the new dimension of automated future

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