CCP recently released a dev blog about planned changes to NPC AI. You can read the dev blog here.
This is a change that has been a long time coming. As someone who has spent a lot of time in wormhole space fighting Sleepers, I know that CCP can do a lot better than the AI we see in the NPCs in known space. Sleepers are much more challenging than other NPCs. This is due, in a large part, because they can prioritize targets and change targets. EVE Online is a GAME. It is not a simulation that is designed to run by itself. The fact that people can and do AFK rat and AFK mission should be a red flag to CCP that something is drastically wrong.
These changes to the NPC AI is a step in the right direction. It's also a plus that old cumbersome code is being replace with new slick code (hopefully).
Will this change be enough to breathe some life into EVE's PvE experience? No, it won't. CCP really needs to pick up the ball when it comes to PvE. The fact that EVE is a "sandbox" game does not get them off the hook when it comes to providing content for the game. It's great that players can create our own content in EVE Online, but that should not be the end of it.
In the end, it's the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. If you'd like to see more and better PvE content in EVE, then make your voice heard. It seems CCP has learned that they ignore the desires of their players at their own peril.
I, like many people, believe that PvP is "where it's at" in EVE. It's the most fun I've had in the game. However, even PvP'ers occasionally find themselves engaging in PvE activities, if only to generate ISK. Imagine a game where such activities are actually enjoyable in their own right, as opposed to a game where they're merely a grind and a means to an end. That's a game I'd enjoy playing. If CCP doesn't provide that experience in EVE Online, it's only a matter of time until another game comes along that does.