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Micro-controllers are electronic "chips" that can be connected to input and output devices and programmed to interact with those devices. They may be programmed in an assembly language, or a higher level language that easily allows many routines to interact with memory, serial communication, sensors, relays, LEDs, MIDI, loudspeakers, and servos.

Example controllers

A popular system for education.

A very inexpensive, versatile chip used widely for embedded computing.

A pic that is pre-programmed to interpret BASIC-style commands using free software from Rev-Ed in the UK.
A class of chips using a standardized instruction set. I have a PG302 programmer for this I acquired from the now-defunct Iguana Labs.