Get ready, businesses. Your new face to the public may have no face at all.

For decades, science fiction has anticipated with computers that can speak to us in a conversational tone. Apple's Siri gave us a first taste of that in a mainstream device. Siri, however, knows only about what Apple teaches it and a bit about what it learns about you. Microsoft was late to the game of voice interfaces with its Siri equivalent Cortana, but the company has been far more aggressive about making Cortana interact with other products, including its own apps like ts messenger and video chat product Skype.

Beyond that, the company is also working to allow almost any company to engage in a Cortana-like dialogue with almost any customer via digital agents it calls bots. To demonstrate this, the company showed how a pizza chain such as Domino's could create a bot to respond to requests for pizza, recognizing details in a conversation such as how many pizzas to order, what the toppings would be, and where it should be delivered.

They speak customers' language

Like Siri, the bot can recognize many synonyms and could work whether the customer says, "I want" "I'd like to order" or "Send me" a pizza. And in addition to confirming the order, it could reply with helpful information such as, "Great. Your pizza should be there in about 20 minutes." While setting up sophisticated, conversational bots still requires programming, anticipating a wider variety of words is about as simple as looking up words in an online thesaurus.

They're well-educated.

The bot technology draws upon a number of Microsoft technologies such as speech recognition and a vast understanding of the way people search for and phrase things that the company has gleaned from services such as Bing and Cortana. Microsoft works bots in other communication environments such as team workflow darling Slack, secure messaging client Telegram, and even e-mail and SMS, the gateway to inexpensive feature phones.

They know what they don't know.

Bots can grow smarter over time., eventually getting quite advanced. But, of course, they can't understand everything a human can, so Microsoft is also building in the ability to hand off a conversation to one of those archaic flesh-and-blood agents when requests get too complex. In this way, they're somewhat a fancier, modern-day extension of the nearly universal Interactive Voice Response systems that customers often encounter when dialing company phone numbers. Those have gotten more sophisticated over the years as well, in part due to companies such as TellMe Networks, which was acquired back in 2007 by, that's right, Microsoft.

Placing conversational chat bots into various messaging apps represents the move for such programs to continue to grow well beyond person-to-person communication and become a gateway to many services, including sending money, buying gifts, making restaurant reservations and shopping. Such features are already common in popular Chinese apps such as WeChat, Facebook has also been adding services to Messenger to create such a platform. While the technology rests on the leading edge, the business mandate is ancient: engaging consumers in the way that's most convenient for them.

How to Get Your Business What it Needs From the $2 Trillion Stimulus: Join Us for a Live Expert Q&A
Published on: Mar 31, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.