Next use for Minecraft: AI research

Minecraft has been used to teach geography and math. Now it’s being tapped for an even higher academic calling: artificial intelligence research.

Microsoft, which now owns and develops the virtual world game, announced Monday that its researchers are already using Minecraft to figure out how to teach computers to learn how to interact with the world around them. Later this year the company plans to open up the game to AI researchers outside the company.

As a virtual environment, Minecraft offers advantages over the real world. Minecraft allows virtual characters to interact with a world that works similarly to our own, where actions have consequences and physics exists. But AI “agents” inside the game can make mistakes and learn by trial and error without harming themselves or the real world.

“It’s a digital playpen for artificial intelligence,” Fernando Diaz, a senior researcher in Microsoft Research’s New York lab, said in a blog post. “It’s an environment in which we can develop an algorithm for teaching a young artificial intelligence to learn different concepts in the world.”

Microsoft researchers like Diaz have been using Minecraft to explore how artificial intelligence can learn how to climb a hill. Instead of giving the AI agent a task to accomplish, the Microsoft team has been trying to nudge it along with various rewards and incentives, trying to see if it can figure out on its own what its mission is and how to do it.

The company has created a platform called AIX that it’s using to test artificial intelligence inside Minecraft. Microsoft has already been beta testing the platform with a select number of academic researchers. It plans to make AIX available under an open-source license to all researchers later this year.

At least initially, the Minecraft AI experiments will run on researchers’ own computers. But eventually, Microsoft plans to allow the AI agents to interact with everyday human Minecraft players.

The effort to expand Minecraft into AI research is only the latest by Microsoft to extend Minecraft’s reach. In January, the company announced a version of Minecraft that it customized for schools.

Photo: Screen capture from Minecraft.

 

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