My long-suffering friend Tali Rosca, recovered from her repeated immersions in the waters of Caledon, has pointed me at the latest Big Thing In SL, now in development on selected sims in the Aditi beta-testing grid, just the way mesh was. A whole host of new LSL functions are being developed for path-finding and guiding autonomous objects; you will be able to set an object to find its way between waypoints, to seek out and follow a particular target - a person, say - or to wander within a fixed area. There are a whole host of interesting status codes associated with these commands, which will allow you to develop a pretty intelligent sort of wandering object, one which can patrol, or attack, or run away as situations demand....
"But are there not plenty of scripted patrol or follower objects out there?" you might ask, not without reason. "Isn't this just going to be an easier way to script them? Isn't it going to make it easier to replace things like Miss Schism's old dog, which was supposed to follow waypoints, only it took her about half an hour to program them in, and even then the dog just stood around revolving slowly around its long axis whenever the lag got bad?"
Well, maybe, but... the telling thing, for me, is the word used in the LSL documentation to describe these objects. That word is character. This is a major step forward towards having actual programmable NPCs in Second Life.
The "character" in the documentation is an abstract thing, a place-holder enclosed in a "capsule" that helps define its interactions... but this "character", inworld, is going to have a physical appearance, and there is no reason why it shouldn't look like a character, or in other words, a person. No reason at all why you can't drop one of these scripts into one of those "sculpted n00b" objects you can buy - and, with patience, and a readily-available tool like Prim Puppetteer, you can have a human-like figure that moves around in a human-like way....
.... and why stop there? The wiki notes, here, indicate that your character has to be priced up for Land Impact using the new rules for mesh uploads... so, why not make your character a mesh? Why not make it a mesh based on a standard avatar mesh? (A copy of which is on my hard drive right now, as I think is true for most even semi-serious content creators.) And there is no technical reason, though the SL software might not currently permit it, why an avatar-shaped mesh can't be animated the same way as an ordinary avatar. In short, it may soon be possible to build something which looks, and to some extent acts, exactly like any everyday SL avatar - a true NPC; not a scripted-agent bot, but a physical (well, SL-physical) entity that you can build and operate inworld. Heck, it wouldn't take much - a bit of Photoshop work and a simple particle emitter - to give it a realistic-looking nametag, even. It would still talk in green, and wouldn't show up on the mini-map ... but that might be the only way to tell it from a normal avatar! Link it to some off-grid "Eliza"-like system - and there are scripted objects that do that already - and it could even carry on a conversation.
By now, I am seeing all sorts of possibilities, here, and some of them are good, and some of them are less good. There is a substantial market - baffling to me, I admit! - for SL pregnancies and prim babies; would you like a prim baby that talks? that grows up into a prim child, running around and getting into scrapes, even maybe playing with other prim children?
The various SL "menial" professions, already few and far between, will be further threatened. Heck, models in shops are already obsolete, really; the only thing that stands between them and oblivion is that it's generally too much of a faff to bake clothing textures onto a Blender avatar model in the same way that they're baked onto real-live avis. But greeters and so on could be replaced with scripted "characters".... not to mention the possible effects on the (ahem) older professions. There are already things like "stripper HUDs" which will regurgitate appropriately "sexy" messages without any of that tedious flirting and emotional involvement which (so some people say) just gets in the way of pixel sex... how about we hook one of those up to a sex bed which generates its own partner(s) for you?
And here we start getting into all sorts of dubious possibilities, I think. As with any other technology, the potential for abuse is there, and is quite substantial. Suppose you made an NPC bot based on another avi? Or a famous person, living or dead? What's to stop you? Again, all sorts of possibilities... imagine, say, Hamlet in SL, acted out by a virtual Laurence Olivier or Henry Irving; heck, you could automate the whole cast, couldn't you, if you had enough time and land capacity? Or you could make your own copy of M Linden and have him try to flee from you when you hunt him down and exact a just and frightful retribution. It's really up to you, your creativity, and your conscience.... The average SL user does have a conscience, right?
Maybe I am worrying unnecessarily, based on an alpha-release project that's still in its early days. But... most of the technology for this exists right now, and what doesn't isn't exactly rocket science. If I can come up with a list of possibilities like this, other people can come up with more. Maybe we should all be thinking about this a little bit.