Press release | 24.4.2018
Munich, 24 April 2018 - Danish inventors Gaute Munch, Erik Hansen and team are the creators of an invention that teaches the fundamentals of computer coding and robotics. First brought to market in 1998 by Danish company LEGO®, their award-winning MINDSTORMS® Robotics Invention System product series enables users to construct toy robots featuring digitally enhanced components that "learn" behaviours via a programming interface. The series makes technologies previously only accessible to people with science degrees available as creative tools for children and other playful inventors.
For this achievement, Gaute Munch, Erik Hansen and their team have been nominated as finalists for the European Inventor Award 2018 in the category "Industry". The winners of the EPO's annual innovation prize will be announced at a ceremony in Paris, Saint-Germain-en-Laye, on 7 June 2018.
"The Danish team's invention furthers an understanding of technology from an early age and could inspire the next generation of IT talent in Europe," said EPO President Benoît Battistelli, announcing the European Inventor Award 2018 finalists. "Robotics was once the exclusive preserve of IT professionals and people with science degrees, but these programmable toys invite young users and other creative minds to develop inventions of their own."
The Danish inventors are part of the international team that developed programmable robots as the evolution of one of the world's most classic children's toys. LEGO began making modular building blocks as early as 1949, and the mechanics of the bricks were protected by a patent in 1958, which paved the way for the European company to become one of the world's three largest toy manufacturers today. The task of Munch, Hansen and team was to bring the classic building block into the information age by blending it with computer technology.
The team drew on the research from an earlier partnership between LEGO and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston, which created a minicomputer called the MIT Programmable Brick in 1994. Measuring ten LEGO units in length - counted as "dots" on the bricks - and seven units in width, the minicomputer was able to respond to eight sensors and simultaneously control four accessories, such as motors and switches to move the arms of a robot. To program the mini-PC, scientists used a text-based coding language called Brick Logo.
However, the programmable brick remained limited to experts in computer science, mainly because it required learning a programming language and having access to professional-level computer equipment. That is why in 1997, LEGO tasked a 15-person development team with transforming the minicomputer into a market-ready product that even children could program. This is where Gaute Munch, a passionate electrical engineer since an early age, teamed up with Erik Hansen, who had previously perfected a range of computer inventions, in part during periods in Boston working with the MIT team.
Collaborating with colleagues in the US, the Danish team made key steps and filed several patents in the process. First, the team replaced complicated, text-based programming with a child-friendly graphical interface on the computer. Second, they created a minicomputer - embedded in LEGO-style bricks - called the RCX.
As the "brain" of robotic creations, the RCX connected to a PC via an infrared "bridge". This connection allows the RCX to learn behaviours created in the software and enact them in the real world. And to empower users to control functionality even without a PC, the inventors added methods to program functions using pulses of visible light. These functions teach users the basics of computer programming, including so called "IF/THEN"-routines: If a touch sensor is triggered, then the RCX will cause a motor to move a robot's arm. Launched to market in 1998, the LEGO MINDSTORMS® RCX system consisted of the RCX, a motor and four sensors, and became an immediate success.
Before the arrival of LEGO MINDSTORMS, classes in robotics were an exception in school curricula. But only one year after the initial release, LEGO began working with secondary schools to introduce the robotic toys in science education programmes to let children build serious skills by "teaching" their own robots. In 1998, the company started an ongoing partnership with US-based charity For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) to bring robotic sets to 200 participating schools. The programme was soon expanded to an international level as the FIRST LEGO League (FLL), where teams learn to apply science, technology, engineering and maths concepts to research and develop solutions to real-world problems such as food safety, recycling and energy. In 2017, more than 200 000 students on 30 000 teams worldwide submitted their creative robot concepts.
Looking ahead, creative programmers are in high demand and triggering children's curiosity with computer-based toys could build much-needed talent in Europe. A current report found that 40% of people in the European Union have "insufficient" digital skills, while 22% have none. Although the information and computer technology (ICT) sector is creating 120 000 new jobs per year, Europe could face a shortage of more than 756 000 skilled ICT workers by 2020. According to the inventors, the LEGO robotics programme is already showing effects, as they say they often meet new students at technical universities who credit their toy invention for being the reason they started a technical education.
The LEGO Group is among the top-three companies on the global toy market, which is worth some EUR 70 billion annually. The company reported EUR 4.7 billion in revenues in 2017 and employed 17 534 people around the world. With headquarters in Billund, Denmark, LEGO has sold more than 200 billion bricks in over 120 countries to date, and Hansen says the robotic toys have played a key role in this success.
Constantly evolving over the years, the LEGO MINDSTORMS series is currently in its third generation and has won numerous honours, including the New York Toy Fair's "Educational Toy of the Year" award. Key patented inventions made by Munch, Hansen and their team are fundamental to the ongoing success of what has become a fully-fledged technology platform. The patents are also behind other successful LEGO coding toy products, which still follow the principle of responding to sensory triggers with user-defined behaviours.
Even before developing educational toys at LEGO, Gaute Munch enjoyed working with young people. As an avid sailor he traversed the Atlantic from Denmark to the Caribbean Islands between 1984 and 1989, and also involved youths in sailing projects back home in Denmark. In his current role as Technology Frontend Director at LEGO System A/S, the electrical engineer with a degree from Aarhus University often appears at LEGO MINDSTORMS education and league events and participates in R&D focus groups with young users: "It is just great to see all the kids and other playful inventors creating great things," he says.
Erik Hansen made his first invention as a young boy: A cookie cutter, still used by his mother, based on a discarded oil filter from a 1952 Ferguson tractor. In his role at LEGO Creative Play Lab, he collaborates with leading universities and companies on new generations of science-based toys. Still a passionate tinkerer, the electrical engineer with a degree in business innovation built a sustainable heating system for his farmhouse - controlled by a LEGO MINDSTORMS robot. He describes his work as "a passion and a fantastic privilege to take part in the innovation of products that help millions of children play and learn better and to reach their potential in life."
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Started at the Media Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the LEGO MINDSTORMS product line builds a bridge - out of modular LEGO bricks - between university computer labs and the toy market. Other popular toys that started as science experiments include the Super Soaker water pistol, Play-Doh modelling compound and the Rubik's Cube. Patented by Hungarian inventor Ernő Rubik, who also served on the jury at a past European Inventor Award, the Rubik's Cube was designed as a puzzle to teach students 3D geometry.
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