For 11 years, Americans were delighted by the television sitcom Cheers, a neighborhood bar which provided the personal touch for its patrons, along with humorous melodrama. The catchy theme song insists, “You want to be where everybody knows your name.”
“It’s about self-service, connecting online, in a car, in a store, where the service will get faster, more personalized and a higher probability of getting what you want, with a conversational voice interface,” explained Todd Mozer, the founder and CEO of Sensory, a Silicon Valley company providing a suite of AI technologies to the service industry. Check out an example of customers interacting with Sensory’s technology suite at a coffee shop in the video below.
More Than Just a Pretty Voice
The new AI products won’t be just a touch-screen kiosk or a voice interaction system. Sensory’s AI technologies can work with a camera and microphone to detect everything from who you are to what you’re feeling in order to better understand what you want. That’s information that can solve a variety of problems.
“Our product suite is not intended to be a ‘do everything’ assistant platform that competes with Alexa, Cortana, Google Assistant or Siri,” Mozer told Observer. “It is instead designed to support a specific domain (such as taking menu orders in a restaurant) with extreme accuracy and flexibility. This also allows companies to deploy a totally customized user and branding experience. The modular software design affords companies the ability to add or remove certain AI capabilities to create new customer experiences or add on to an existing application. For example, natural language, biometrics, emotions and demographics are all analytics that can be detected and used to improve the customer experience.”
Joe Murphy, now a Sensory executive who founded Vocalize.ai, which was acquired by Sensory early this year, provided an example: “Let’s say I like salads, but I sometimes forget to ask for dressing on the side. When I forget to ask, the folks in the kitchen put way too much on, and I’d like to be able to control that. With our AI technologies we’re providing, the system will know who I am and can keep track of my order history and preparation preferences and requirements and learn from that data so mistakes like this won’t happen. I have a better chance of getting what I really want.”
There could be a lot more at stake as well. The Washington Post reported on how a teenager told a restaurant he was eating at that he had a dairy allergy. But the restaurant accidentally served him a meal that ended up killing him, on his birthday.
“Other times, the difference comes from responding to the way a specific consumer might like things, and not what might generally apply,” according to Mozer. “When the customer walks in, there is bit of ‘customization’ taking place. Today, the menu is changed based upon the time of day or year, and not on the person coming in. What if that person looks younger or older; perhaps the menu should change for that. This idea is called ‘micropersonalization.'”
Sensory’s technology can also prevent people from waiting a long time for service. “With terminals and voice ordering apps, the lines would get a lot shorter,” Mozer pointed out. “Extra workers could make the food and make the dining experience better. Voice is faster, safer (while driving) and cleaner than touch too.”
“Touch-screen kiosks are pretty dirty,” Mozer laughed. “You should see how much bacteria those things have on them. As kids, we were told that you have to sing the full ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ song three times while washing your hands to get them really clean. Who honestly does that? Now, think about how these systems work today. You walk in, tap and swipe in your order, then sit down to eat a meal. Nobody is washing their hands first.”
The Importance of Information
You’ve heard about how “millennials are killing everything,” right? They are blamed for “closing down” certain businesses because of their shopping—and even ordering—habits.
“Millennials like to order ahead via restaurant mobile apps and pick up their food. An app with Sensory voice-ordering technology can be the perfect solution for ordering while driving,” said Mozer.
But what if the problem is that the business doesn’t know what millennials really want, or how to best to serve them, instead of making assumptions that they’re simply, “Younger Baby Boomers?” That customer specific data could be the key, and retaining exclusive data control over those details could be a valuable asset for large chains. Sensory allows its customers to own and maintain such data with its technology suite.
But aren’t humans good at gathering data? Well…
“Humans aren’t good record keepers,” Mozer sighed. “We used to tell our sales team to ask customers where they had heard about us from. But time proved they were bad at consistently reporting on this mundane question. Now, imagine a waitress having to be asked to take down information about the customer’s age, gender and how satisfied the customer was with every order. It would require a lot of extra data-entry work, and probably some guessing on her part. AI makes it easy to collect this kind of data accurately.”
What’s so important about this data, even for a restaurant? There are a lot of huge AI and data rich companies that are getting into the delivery business, including food. Big chain restaurants are getting worried about losing their customers or their margins to these companies. They want to bring more ownership in-house. That’s why McDonald’s recently started a McD TechLab. “The heavyweights in AI win at every game that’s played,” added Mozer.
Murphy noted an additional benefit: “But we offer something better than the giants. Restaurants can own the experience and they data collected. With the data giants, you have to conform to their style. Our platform offers a lot more flexibility and allows for total customization of our platform, meaning restaurants can create a totally branded experience. For example, companies can use their own branded wake word instead of a data company’s wake word.”
Will AI Wipe Away Humanity?
With a dad who was an astrophysicist helping send spacecraft to the Sun to get more information, and a brother who was a computer science professor focusing on technology, it’s easy to see how Mozer got interested in the subject of artificial intelligence.
“We’re not a new company jumping on the latest trend and out raising hundreds of millions of dollars. We’ve been working with neural networks for 25 years, and our technology has shipped in over three billion products. We do everything small footprint, so our customers can choose between on-device or private cloud implementations. We offer speech recognition, natural language, face and voice biometrics, and have AI that can identify customer demographic information, their emotional status and even identify the sounds it hears. Our platform combines all of these, understanding what people say and want. If you’re a repeat customer, it will even know your name.”
I can almost hear the Cheers bar yell, “Norm!”
But will this lead to massive layoffs?
“QSR [quick service restaurants] as a field has low unemployment,” Murphy observed. “But, finding people to take these jobs is hard. AI opens up the possibility that employees can focus on brand experience, food safety and customer satisfaction.”
But won’t this lead to more “contingent-based work” for humans, which is less secure and stable, over the long term?
“Worldwide, there’s more freelancing going on, but that’s because of the communication revolution,” Mozer pointed out. “You can put out an RFP for a project and have a somebody in another country bid on the job these days. However, history has shown that advances in tech have actually correlated with more employment, not less. But who knows what the future holds?”
If that’s the case, that could lead to more shoppers and folks wanting to dine out, keeping the system going. That would provide Sensory AI a lot of good cheer.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia—read his full bio here.