Brain boxes: Microsoft is using Minecraft to teach artificial intelligence

Blockbuster game bolsters its educational credentials

Microsoft has revealed Project AIX, an open source platform designed to test out and help hone artificial intelligence (AI) using Minecraft. It's currently in closed beta but should be made broadly available this summer.

When Microsoft bought up Mojang, you probably wondered what Redmond was going to do with Minecraft – and you probably didn't guess that one usage of the popular sandbox game would be to train artificial intelligence routines.

The idea is based around the fact that playing Minecraft is a learning process, and just as a human has to become familiar with the nuances of the game when they sit down in front of it and play (without reading the manual – as come on, who does that?), so an AI can learn from Mojang's block-building epic.

As Microsoft observes in a blog post, the artificial intelligence starts off knowing nothing about its in-game environment or goals, and has to stumble about working things out. The AI has to learn about climbing hills, avoiding lava, the importance of light and dark, and eventually understand rewards and goals, all using the same type of methods and resources a human would.

In other words, this isn't about having an AI be able to demonstrate that it can successfully play a game – but rather, that it can genuinely learn to play said game.

Or as Fernando Diaz, a senior researcher on the project put it: "We're trying to program it to learn, as opposed to programming it to accomplish specific tasks."

Cooperative chops

Minecraft was chosen as ideal for helping to test and develop AI because it's such a huge open-world game with a vast array of possible actions and complicated decisions. The collaborative side of the game is also a major plus when it comes to experimenting with how AIs might work together (or indeed work with humans).

And of course testing AI inside a game has obvious advantages in terms of cost effectiveness. If you build a real-world robot that has to climb up a hill, and it makes a mistake, falls over and breaks something – that's a costly repair. Whereas an AI blundering around inside a virtual world won't cost you anything save the power you're using to keep the hardware on.

It's hoped that Project AIX will help to push computers forward in terms of developing 'general intelligence', i.e. the more nuanced way humans learn to make decisions combining all manner of different factors and senses in a manner that's extremely difficult to begin to emulate.

As for the AIX platform itself, it consists of a Minecraft mod with code bolted on that allows AI agents to sense and act within the game environment, and it can be run across Windows, OS X or Linux.

Minecraft is of course being used to teach kids as well, with the Minecraft Education Edition set to be pushed out this summer, a revamped version of MinecraftEdu which adds a number of new features.

Via: PC World