Next time you're in Second Life and you're among a group of ten or more Residents, look to your left, then look to your right. If they're in-world for a long stretch of time, statistically speaking the odds are at least one of them is actually a bot, merely programmed to behave like an SL user, but with no actual human actively controlling them on the keyboard.
We're pretty sure of this because of a data point recently mentioned in passing by Linden Chief Financial Officer Zee Linden, who in a discussion forum (reg. req.), was asked about the presence of bots in the company's published user activity stats.
"Yes, bots are included in the user hours," he acknowledged. "Our estimates are that about 10 to 15% of the hours do come from bots."
This is a surprising figure, much larger than I expected. When I first wrote about bots last January-- avatars created and logged into Second Life through open source versions of the viewer-- a Linden engineer told me "they represent a very small percentage of the overall number [of in-world users.]" That may still be narrowly true-- most bots seem to be employed by landowners to artificially drive up their site's traffic, which means they're logged in-world for long stretches of time, just taking up space. When even a small number of bots are in-world all the time, they'll wind up registering a tremendous amount of user hours. Still, 10-15% is quite a lot of the total.
The next question, then, is what to do with them? That brings up several interesting implications.
Like any actual Second Life user, a bot takes up precious server resources, leading to more lag, more downtime, and so on. If they're not contributing to the overall well-being of the SL community, that seems to be an unambiguous negative that should be corrected. Perhaps landowners who use them should be required to pay more, for their care and maintenence-- or maybe they should be outlawed altogether.
Then again, many bots do seem to be serving the community. Some bots are fashion models, displaying avatar accessories in a way that helps consumers make more informed purchases. Other bots run fairly complex artificial intelligence programs, able to converse with Residents, even walk around, or act as in-world tour guides and instructors. Cool and useful in itself; and sometimes, this technology is applied in scientific/psychological experiments that stand to benefit everyone, in SL and RL.
And now that we know bots account for 10-15% of Second Life's user activity, answering these theoretical questions become a practical necessity: what's a "good" bot, what's a "bad" bot, which should be embraced or at least tolerated as useful second class citizens-- and which should be banished from the world forever?