Why do people harm robots – and why do others feel bad for them?
A hitchhiking robot designed to see if humans would be nice to a robot was mauled in Philadelphia. A security robot in San Francisco was smeared with barbecue sauce and feces. A man in Moscow beat a robot with a bat and kicked it to the ground while it was pleading for help. Children in a Japanese mall were found beating a robot as hard as they could.
Then, of course, there are all of those videos of Boston Robotics employees “abusing” BigDog and Atlas. And when the idea of realistic sexbots emerged about a decade ago, one of the first discussions we had was about whether a robot could be raped.
What the heck is wrong with us?!
Are we afraid of robots? Is that why we lash out?
Or are we simply curious about what will happen when we hit something that can’t fight back?
Granted, we’ve long been told that machines will “steal our jobs.” But for the most part, any robot we encounter was built to make our lives easier. So what’s with all the anger?
Recent research has shown that people tended to be kinder to robots when other robots were around to express sadness at their comrades’ poor treatment.
There appears to be some deep, dark psychological phenomenon at work here. But scientists and philosophers alike aren’t convinced of any one answer to the question: why do we abuse robots?
We have far more questions than answers.
Have you ever abused a robot?
In some studies, giving robots names lessened the amount of abuse they received. But have you ever verbally abused Siri or Alexa? Many people have.
It’s hard to put a finger on why we say or do things to robots that we would never do to another human.
Then again, humans have also let robots lead their funerals, we’ve held memorials for robots, and plenty of us couldn’t bear to watch BigDog get hit with that hockey stick.
So, how should we treat robots? Should there be rules, or even laws protecting them from deliberate harm? If we abuse them, what does that say about us? And will allowing people to abuse robots lead to more aggression, perhaps against humans or animals?
But perhaps the most important question is: is it truly immoral to mistreat a robot?
Jonah Engel Bromwich, “Why Do We Hurt Robots?” (New York Times, 2019)
Katherine Schwab, “Robot Abuse Is Real And This Robot Is Designed To Stop It” (Fast Company, 2017)
Simon Coghlan, Barbara Barbosa, and Jenny Waycott, “Abusing A Robot Won’t Hurt It, But It Could Make You A Crueler Person” (The Conversation, 2019)
Patrick Lin, “Would ‘Deviant’ Sex Robots Violate Asimov’s Law of Robotics?” (Forbes, 2018)
Evan Ackerman, “Can Robots Keep Humans from Abusing Other Robots?” (IEEE Spectrum, 2020)
(Paywalled) Bonnie Miller Rubin, “What Makes People Abuse Robots?” (Wall Street Journal, 2020)
Mike Juang, “Next-Gen Robots: The Latest Victims of Workplace Abuse” (CNBC, 2017)