Chatbots are on the rise. With Google, Facebook and Microsoft competing to be the caring voice your customers turn to, what does this mean for your enterprise?

The most prevalent indicator that the artificial intelligence-driven future is rapidly  becoming reality is the rise of the chatbot – an  A.I. software program designed to chat with people. Well, more accurately, the re-emergence of the bot. Basically, robots talking to humans talking to robots is the tech vision for the future.

When many people hear the term ‘bots’ they probably think back to the clunky and awkward chatbots that first had their moment back in the heyday of the desktop messenger. But computer programs that intended to mimic human interactions have been around since the 1960s. Historically, this ability has struggled to find a real purpose, and has been hamstrung by limited technology—but now things are changing.

Microsoft is so certain that the future is going to be full of people talking to chatbots that it has created the Microsoft Bot Framework to help your enterprise build one. At the Build developer conference in March this year, CEO Satya Nadella revealed the company’s grand vision of “conversation as a platform” – positioning bots as the next big way we all will use computers.

Everyday tasks

Big names like Facebook and Google are also attempting to latch on to this kind of artificial intelligence within their messaging apps—turning them into a sort of one-stop shop for everything their users could possibly need.

This is because chatbots are to apps what voice is to user interfaces. Like apps in the mobile universe, chatbots are the mechanism to perform specific tasks using voice or text commands.

For example, Facebook’s digital assistant, named simply M, is designed to do a range of everyday tasks from booking flights and hotels, answering questions, ordering an Uber, or securing tickets to the big game…all through a simple conversation interface.

The idea is that users never have to leave the messenger app to get something done—which means convenience levels soar. More interestingly though, Facebook has opened its platform up to other developers so they can build their own bots for M and effortlessly reach the 900 million people using the app every day. The uses for this can be myriad, and examples of these bots in practice are already starting to crop up in the US.

If you want to see the future of this kind of interaction you only need to look at China’s WeChat. As well as functioning as a messaging app, WeChat enables users to do anything from booking medical appointments to shopping for clothes by interacting with a chatbot designed with an ‘empathetic persona’.

Business bots

So, what could be the practical business applications of these chatbots? Currently many are still being created for fun, but thinking about business implications is where things start to get exciting.

Maybe one of the most obvious uses for this technology would be in service. If you can incorporate your self-service knowledge base into a bot that responds directly to questions and uses customer data to provide the most relevant answers, it’s more convenient for customers and almost completely eradicates the need for a service department.

Problems can be resolved through text chat and web links based on the most common occurrences and solutions—a kind of interactive FAQ resource—and only in the most complex scenarios will an actual person have to step in.

Also, while the chatbot market is still developing, CIO.com predicts that three new vendors will come to the fore: messaging platform vendors, voice platform vendors and chatbot platform vendors.

Dialogue is your operating system

A whole new way of computing could be just around the corner—one where dialogue is your operating system and everything hinges on conversations.

Of course, letting chatbots run wild will throw up some challenges, as Microsoft recently learned, but with the kind of A.I. behind these interfaces currently being used to develop cancer therapies, beat world grandmasters at the board game Go, and cover sports stories for AP, the possibilities seem endless.

So, in order to fully go mainstream in the enterprise, chatbot platforms need to provide capabilities in areas such as integration, security management and monitoring. Data privacy, encryption and access control policies will be key challenges to overcome in order to build the enterprise chatbot platform.

Nonetheless, in the near future we can expect enterprises to adopt chatbot platforms in the same way they’re currently embracing mobile and IoT. The possibilities are many.

The question is, where can chatbots go from here? What uses will they serve and what challenges will we encounter? Leave your thoughts below.