A robot penguin is spotted swimming around a tank at an international exhibition. It flaps its wings as it swims, just like the real thing. Children surround the tank trying to touch it.
The creator is 22-year-old Nao Kondo. She made the penguin while she was still in high school. "I got the idea from watching penguins swim just by flapping their wings. I found their movements amazing.”
Most underwater robots use screw propellers, which are easier to make, but Kondo's penguin has wings. She did a lot of research, even taking body measurements of penguins at the aquarium, and she kept modifying the robot while she was in college.
It fits right in with the real penguins in the tank. This is in keeping with her aim to make "lifelike" robots.
Most robots are made to carry out specific tasks, but Kondo is trying to achieve something else. Robot software developer Tatsuki Adaniya tells us what separates her from the pack.
"There are a lot of men working in robotics and they tend to make robots that are functional and look cool. But Nao doesn't want to make these kinds of robots. She wants to make living creatures, and that's unique in this industry.”
This drive stems from her childhood. As an elementary school student, Kondo had two pets: a tortoise, and a popular robot dog called AIBO. "The AIBO can speak and it reacts to me. The tortoise just sits there and eats. It doesn't do anything, but I've always felt more of a connection with the tortoise.”
Kondo realized that was because the tortoise is real, and she's been trying to capture that essence of life in a robot ever since. She believes robots that are more life-like can comfort people and provide companionship.
She's now working on her first project as a professional robot maker. She calls it 'Nyu' or 'neo-anima. "It may not look like a real animal, but it does the one thing that every living creature does. It breathes.
Kondo studied the rhythms of animal and human breathing and programmed the Nyu to mimic that timing. They appear to be breathing like real creatures. Spectators at the exhibit can't pull themselves away.
"I think they can make people feel better just by being by their side," says Kondo. "I want them to provide psychological relief for people who are alone."
Kondo's career is just getting started. She says her next effort is a made-to-order companion robot suited to one's personal taste.
She hopes that one day everybody has one by their side.