Collaborative robots, or cobots, have been appearing on screen since the beginning of TV and film, from the Superman and Twilight Zone episodes in the 1950s and 1960s to Star Wars in the 1970s to the Terminator films in the ’80s, ’90s, and 2000s. Of the hundreds of robot characters that have been on TV over the years, one of the most recognizable, especially for watchers of the long-running British science fiction program Doctor Who, is “K9,” the lovable cobot dog.
K9 appears throughout episodes of Doctor Who in various forms (e.g., K9 Mark I, II, III, IV). For much of the show, the character travels alongside different versions of the doctor (the protagonist of the series) and assists in completing complex tasks using advanced robotic tools and capabilities, including a laser concealed in his nose, encyclopedic knowledge, and vast intelligence.
Although K9 is said to be from the year 5000, many of the highly advanced (and at the time, fictional) capabilities he possessed are now a reality in 2018. So to have a little fun, let’s explore what present-day technologies we might be able to find if someone were to take apart and reverse engineer K9.
Any avid watcher of the Doctor Who series would agree that K9 is highly intelligent. In addition to interacting dynamically with other characters throughout the series, K9 performs a variety of complex tasks. For instance, in one season, K9 Mark IV is off in the outer reaches of the solar system stabilizing a black hole (obviously, he’s familiar with Einstein’s theory of relativity and quantum mechanics).
In another instance, K9 is tasked with looking for a cure to a virus. One example of his intelligence that is perhaps more applicable to the world we live in today occurs in an episode where K9 is watching a chess game and informing players of which moves are optimal (this is something Google recently made a reality). K9 Mark II also exhibits the ability to sense and warn others of impending danger. All these capabilities point toward advanced artificial intelligence (AI) software applications, such as machine learning, natural language processing (NLP), and predictive analytics, many of which can be found in cobots today.
While disassembling K9, one would likely find an array of sensors that enable the cobot dog to seamlessly interact with his physical environment. Ultrasonic or infrared receiver sensors, which emit radiation to map surroundings, would likely be present to help K9 avoid bumping into objects and other living things. Force sensors would also be present to provide some degree of sensitivity. As K9 can often be found on various planets besides Earth and in the outer reaches of space, he would also need to have a navigation system equipped with inertial sensors for determining motion and position (i.e., accelerometers, gyroscopes, magnetometers).
One aspect of K9 that is rather rudimentary (given that he is from the year 5000) is his graphical interface. Most iterations of the cobot dog feature a small screen on the side of the cobot’s body. The screen displays sinusoidal-like waves when K9 is performing a certain task, like medical scanning. One would assume, however, that if K9 were to be built today, he would include a much more advanced graphics interface—perhaps one that uses a Microchip PIC32MZDA Series Graphics Applications MCU.
These microcontrollers from Microchip Technology excel at GUI designs by delivering performance and quality levels not yet evident in embedded microcontroller applications. At the heart of the PIC32MZDA is the graphics controller subsystem, which is the most advanced of its kind. The graphics processing unit (GPU) enables the GUI to create graphical actions that would be improbable for a microcontroller CPU by itself. The integrated DRAM offers wide-ranging storage for graphics, complex communications, and data logging applications—all things K9 would need to intelligently interact with other beings.
Every iteration of K9 is equipped with lights. While it’s impossible to know what kind of technology they have in the year 5000, a present-day version of K9 would undoubtedly have a high-efficiency, multicolored light display, which means LEDs. With a typical life expectancy of 50,000 hours, LEDs would enable K9 to roam space and time for quite a while before needing any kind of replacement or repair.
While many of the capabilities that K9 had in episodes of Doctor Who, throughout the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, are now a reality in 2018, some are still out of reach. One, which is perhaps the defining feature of the dog, is the high powered laser that extends and retracts from his nose. While such lasers exist in the world today, mostly in military applications, the technology has not yet reached a point where it can be miniaturized, so any replica of K9 would have to be much bigger than the knee-high cobot seen on the show.
A bigger cobot, however, would also present the opportunity for additional hardware and, presumably, more advanced capabilities. Imagine the possibilities!
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