Kate Darling researches our empathic connections to robots. Among the studies she's run were scenarios in which people were allowed to play with cuddly dinosaur robots that acted like puppies - then told to dismember and destroy them. In the talk below, she discusses our empathy for objects that simulate being alive.
There are some neat ideas in this lecture. People who are more empathic to humans show more empathy for a robot, even though they're equally aware that it's an inanimate object. It sounds obvious on its face, but the implication is their empathy is guiding their actions even in the face of obvious evidence. Their empathy is bypassing their cognitions. Perhaps the "decent" part of being human isn't our amazing cognitive capacity, but something more fundamental.