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Is It OK to Murder a Robot?

You see a small, lovely dinosaur. It looks like a toy, but it moves its head gently in a box. When you take it out of the box, it acts like a helpless newborn puppy – it can’t walk and you need to teach it about the world. It turns around to see when hearing something. It bites your finger when you scratch its nose. It shakes tail happily when you touch its back.

Pleo the dinosaur interacts well with people, both physically and mentally. *Image source: BBC, (Philippe Merle /AFP/Getty).

Now I give you a hatchet and ask you to torture or dismember it. Will you do as I say? Will you feel uncomfortable? Will you bear seeing others do that? If someone else does, do you think they should be punished by law?

 Pleo the dinosaur

It’s easier to regard Pleo the dinosaur as a robot when it takes off its soft skin. *Image source: BBC, (John MacDougall /AFP/Getty).

If companion animals worth protecting, how about companion robots?

Many science fictions have discussed similar topics and actually what we’ve concerned has already happened. The so-called “social robot”, designed to interact with people and evoke people’s emotions, has more than ten years of history. For example, the robot dinosaur, Pleo the dinosaur, was invented in 2006. If companion animals worth our protection, how about companion robots?

Robot nexi
Robot Nexi smiles when people approach. *Image source: BBC, (Thomas Bregardis/AFP/Getty).


Sony’s AIBO dog is treated as a real animal by many owners – a few of them even remove it from the room when changing clothes. *Image source: BBC, (Science Photo Library).

Kate Darling, a researcher at the Media Lab of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is an advocate for robot rights. She believes that objecting animal abusing not only protect the dignity of animals that can think and have emotions, but also conforms to human’s own feelings.  Perhaps social robots can’t actually feel pain, but human can feel uncomfortable when torturing robots; moreover, the difference between robots and animals become even smaller – at least for children – as technology advances. Under this circumstance, should we offer robots some rights, simply for better protection of life?

Protecting robots is probably protecting human

In a 2011 study, MIT researcher Freedom Baird conducted an experiment: He asked children to hold upside down a Barbie doll, a hamster and a Furby robot for as long as they felt comfortable. While the children held the Barbie doll upside down until their arms got tired, they soon stopped torturing the wriggling hamster, and after a little while, the Furby robot too. They were old enough to know that the Furby was a toy, but still, they couldn’t stand the way it was programmed to cry and say “Me scared”.

It is not just children that form surprising bonds with these bundles of wires and circuits. Some people name their Roomba vacuum cleaners. Some soldiers honor their robots with medals or hold funerals for them. A Los Alamos Roboticist designed a military robot to defuse landmines by stepping on them. Each time a landmine went off, the robot lost one leg, and it continued to move on with the left legs. In its first field test, the explosions ripped off most of its legs, and yet the crippled machine kept on moving. Watching the struggle of the robot, the colonel in charge called the test off because it was “inhumane”.

 Soldier and robot

Soldiers give medals and hold funerals for their robot partners, such as this robot that carries heavy loads. *Image source: BBC, (USMC/Kyle J. O. Olso)

On the other hand, the ability of robots in triggering feelings may become a tool for venting. If one chooses to vent evil thoughts on robots, is it OK?  Do this kind of action do less or more harm to the society? If these actions are seen by kids, what will happen?  Some advocates for animal right believe that if animal abuse is permitted, people exert the actions will be encouraged to develop antisocial tendency; and if the above logic makes sense, then it can also applied to robot torturing.

Indeed, these laws are not likely to get passed currently – most of people feel that these are not their business since we seldom see robots with human characteristics. However, it might be a good idea to introduce progressive, partial robot rights. Perhaps in some day in the future, when robots dominate, the goodwill set aside in advance may save our lives.


BBCIs it OK to torture or murder a robot?

io9.comShould we extend legal rights to social robots?