Humans have a tendency to anthropomorphize robots, but we are also experiencing an increase in robots specifically designed to engage with us socially. A “social robot” is a physically embodied, autonomous agent that communicates with humans through social cues, learning adaptively and mimicking human social states. If we perceive social robots as life-like things, the authors assert that our behavior toward them should be regulated. The authors draw the analogy of animal abuse regulation, which is justified in part because animal abuse prevents human behavior that is also harmful in other contexts. The level of human attachment to a robot can be based on the interplay of three factors: physicality, perceived autonomous movement, and social behavior. These factors make certain robots elicit emotional reactions from people similar to how we react to animals or other people. Such robots target our involuntary biological responses and generate a projection of intent and sentiment onto the robots’ behavior. This is particularly strong when the robot exhibits a “caregiver effect.” The authors discuss concerns that disseminating social robots undermines the value of authenticity in society, replacing human social interactions, and the increasing the dangers of manipulation and invasions of privacy. There are, however, some extremely positive social uses of social robots, particularly in the areas of health and education. Preventing robot abuse would protect societal values, prevent traumatization, and prevent desensitization. Social robot abuse protection laws could effectively follow the analogy of animal abuse protection laws. The authors define social robots as an embodied object with a defined degree of autonomous behavior that is specifically designed to interact with humans on a social level, but note that “mistreatment” remains to be defined. The authors also briefly comment on the property law impacts and discuss when the appropriate time would be to start regulating our treatment of social robots.
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