Lego's intelligent bricks put power in children's hands

New Lego bricks containing programmable microchips went on show yesterday.After 30 years of work by American researchers, children (well, those whose parents have a PC and pounds 150 to spare) will soon be able to buy and program the "intelligent bricks" to create self-propelling robots able to follow trails, move towards or away from light, and navigate through unfamiliar territory.

The brick is the result of work at the MIT Media Laboratory in Massachusetts, where scientists including Seymour Papert, father of the Logo computer language, have been investigating ways of extending computer abilities to toys. "Lego wasn't the first to use plastic to make toys, but it was the first to use them in a significant way - to expand the range of what children can make," Professor Papert said. "Similarly, other companies have used the power of digital technology to make things for children. But now the power is in the hands of the children."

Logo is a simple computer language which was widely used in British schools in the 1980s to teach children about programming ideas. With it, they could use a computer to program a self-powered "turtle" to explore its environment.

The new Lego bricks can be programmed in a similar way. Among the inventions on show yesterday was a robotic Lego arm which could pick up a can, and an intruder alarm that reads bar codes.

A second creation from the group - Lego Technic CyberMaster - enables children to build a robot gladiator that can be instructed to compete with a hand-held rival. The gladiator, which can be programmed with different personalities, talks to the child throughout the game as it tries to out- manoeuvre the rival.

Lego has been funding work at MIT Lab for 13 years, though a spokesman for the pounds 4bn company declined to put a price on the cost of the development.

The new products will be released in the US and UK in August.

- Charles Arthur, Science Editor