Amy Harmon at the NYT has a good overview of a generation of robots specifically designed to trigger emotional cues in their easily manipulated meatbag slaves, er, that is, people. The key example is Paro, a therapeutic robot baby seal.
Jamais Cascio has suggested this empathic reaction should have moral weight. Like Mencius’ heart of compassion, he plausibly argues it is a marker of the complexity of the synthetic creature and our responsibility to it. Don’t Kick The Robot, Cascio advises. Developing the idea, he proposed it as one of five laws of robot ethics.
While SF stories focus on robots analogous existence to humans, for the forseeable future the link with animals will be far more relevant. Most people, and even philosophers like Peter Singer, suggest an animal has a different moral character to a person due to its lack of awareness about or plans for the future. It’s also worth remembering what most people’s ethical codes allow towards animals: of course empathy and affection, but also humane husbandry for profit, and slaughter for the dinner table. We treat many animals much like we treat these robots: as tools.