mark_zuckerbergWhen Facebook’s annual F8 developers conference kicks off next week, CEO Mark Zukerberg is expected to focus much of the conversation on so-called chat bots. Those bots will replace potentially phone calls to businesses. They could even automate conversations between customers and businesses eager to support them.

Sure, chat bots sound futuristic. The virtual agents, which leverage artificial intelligence, mimic human conversation. And they’re going mainstream. Watch for them to invade Facebook’s messenger service very soon.

“It’s this notion of conversations as a service,” Patrick Moorhead, an analysts at Moor Insights & Strategy, told ABC News. “The whole element of bots are we can use them exactly like we chat today — over SMS [text messages] or Messenger. Imagine connecting with a company where it automatically is either a real human or uses AI to know exactly what you want.”

Facebook’s chat bot focus isn’t unique. Microsoft will be in the market. And startups like Kik are are looking to make big moves, notes Bloomberg.

“Chat bots are like mini apps that live in a conversation thread,” according to Kik. “Consumers can chat to bots as if they were chatting to a friend. Bots help people find information, have fun, or get connected to the real world through the scanning of Kik Codes. A bot can share rich media, including videos and images, or just simple conversation. It’s like a native ad for chat.”

The big question: Will chat bots offer more than marketing chatter and promotional content? At some point, I suspect IT service management software will include chat bots. MSP-friendly companies like LogicNow, OpenDNS (now owned by Cisco) and Webroot already leverage machine learning for their platforms. It’s a safe bet additional software companies will plug richer AI (artificial intelligence) into the MSP market.

Indeed, some form of the HAL 9000 could be manning your help desks at some point.

Still, that reality won’t arrive overnight. Microsoft’s Tay chat bot experienced an embarrassing setback a few days ago — as users taunted, poked and prodded the system… essentially training it to make racist statements.