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Microsoft’s breakthrough means that its chatbots and digital assistants can talk and listen at the same time, rather than just answering one-off questions. (Microsoft Photo)

Microsoft’s digital assistants and chatbots are getting a lot chattier.

Microsoft today unveiled the ability for bots to have “session-oriented” back and forth conversations with humans, instead of the single question, single answer format seen in most digital assistants today. Microsoft believes it is the first company to release this technology, known as Full-Duplex Voice Sense, which allows digital assistants and chatbots to talk and listen at the same time.

Microsoft said the longest conversation so far under the new technology lasted more than four hours, with 1,600 back and forth turns between human and bot. In addition to the longer conversations, Microsoft’s new voice technology doesn’t require the user to say the wake word constantly and the bots can predict what humans will say next to keep the discussion moving.

Microsoft has already embedded the technology into Xiaoice and Rinna, the tech giant’s Chinese and Japanese chatbots. The capability is also launching in several Internet of Things devices from Microsoft partner Xiaomi. Microsoft said it will bring the technology to its U.S. chatbot Zo and teased the possibility of adding it to the digital assistant Cortana in the future.

Microsoft has maintained that the current capabilities of chatbots and digital assistants only scratch the surface of what these technologies can do. Microsoft is playing the long game in this market, focusing on smoother conversations and useful integrations.

“It’s a long journey to making a real assistant that you can communicate with over a longer period of time to really be approachable and interesting and better than the alternative,” Andrew Shuman, corporate vice president of Cortana engineering, told GeekWire in January. “That is our journey, to make some make some great experiences that shine through, and recognize that long haul.”

Speech recognition and conversation is a big part of Microsoft’s broader artificial intelligence push. As part of the massive engineering reorganization announced by CEO Satya Nadella last week, the company is attempting to bring AI into everything it does, including its first-party hardware.

Nadella formed the Microsoft AI and Research group in 2016 as what was then the fourth engineering division at the company. With the latest reorganization, the AI group remains mostly intact as one of the now three engineering divisions at the company, alongside Experiences & Devices and Cloud + AI.

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