Derrick Johnson: Harnessing voice tech to improve the drive-through

With help from SRI, the CEO and co-founder of Encounter AI is improving customer experience and changing the way we order a meal.

Derrick Johnson, CEO and co-founder of Encounter AI, is leveraging SRI’s Speech and Technology Research Lab expertise to improve the voice technology behind America’s drive-thrus and ordering systems. Here, Derrick discusses how his career journey and love for understanding how things work led to the creation of startup Encounter AI.

Working in technology comes naturally to me. I grew up on the south side of Chicago, and on the square mile where I spent my time, we had practically every major chain restaurant with a drive-thru, so I knew that world intimately from a customer standpoint. As a kid, I loved tinkering and watching futuristic TV shows like The Jetsons, and I remember my parents giving me a Radio Shack electronics kit which I used to build an alarm system for our front door, from there I knew I wanted to be involved in technology when I grew up.

As I grew older, I did my own research and development. I worked for Kohl’s, a travel agency, a Disney hotel, and a large consulting firm and saw firsthand how big brands were using artificial intelligence (AI). I think all these experiences inspired me; I knew that the usage of technologies like data science and machine learning could transform the businesses and neighborhoods I was familiar with. I’ve come to believe that the most novel ideas are generated when you’re able to synthesize all the different things you’ve seen and learned into something new.

A couple of years ago, I co-founded a restaurant technology company, Encounter AI, to develop an AI voice system that was conversational and could improve how orders are taken at drive-throughs, kiosks, and over the phone. I saw the need for scalable employee solutions after being exposed to labor triage in consulting and believed it was an important idea; the digitization of food ordering has only increased since the COVID-19 pandemic, and restaurants are trying to move increasing numbers of cars through a limited space and improve the retail experience for customers and employees.

We knew we needed advanced voice tech to get us there.

I came to know SRI through an outreach message on LinkedIn. We were doing some marketing and public relations, and SRI’s Speech Technology and Research (STAR) Lab was doing some R&D on new voice technology they felt might work for us. We had data that would be helpful to their research, and they were able to solve problems we hadn’t been able to solve by ourselves or by using other outside resources. That initial contact led to a conversation, and a few months later, they gave us a product to test. It’s been an amazing journey.

Today we use SRI’s advanced ASR (speech recognition) platform, which came from SRI’s OLIVE speech system. ASR uses natural language processing technology to convert speech to text. This allows our system to better understand what people are saying by using subtle clues in language and spoken tone to make the ordering process much smoother. For example, the system can determine if a customer ordering a hamburger has simply paused to consider their next item or has completed their order, and respond accordingly.

In this space, there’s a lot to look forward to. I’m excited about large language models like ChatGPT. This is a watershed moment in technology; generative AI is going to transform innovation and help new groups of people who have ideas but haven’t known where to go with them. I’m especially excited for the rise of black and brown people into machine learning and AI and to see what problems this next generation can solve. Could someone who now lives in a food desert come to understand this new technology to make sure those deserts never happen again? That’s the kind of thing that intrigues me.

I’m proud of the journey I’ve taken and how far we’ve come. I’m especially proud of our collaboration with SRI. We knew what our company needed, but we didn’t know if it existed or if anyone had explored it.

With SRI, I feel like I’m standing on the shoulders of giants. They’ve put in decades of research, and I’m able to come in and leverage that work to accelerate my company. It was eye-opening that we could also benefit from an investment side because we now have this core technology we didn’t have to spend capital to build. It’s been transformational.

Read more from SRI