Microsoft uses Minecraft to improve artificial intelligence

Microsoft uses Minecraft to improve artificial intelligence
Playing Minecraft could have a significant impact on the future of artificial intelligence (AI), as Microsoft researchers experiment with developing technology through the video game.

Computer scientists working at Microsoft’s laboratory in Cambridge, UK, have unveiled a project dedicated to expanding the capacity of AI technology through exploring the virtual world of Minecraft.

The aim of project AIX is to give researchers practical ways to test their systems and algorithms. Microsoft say Minecraft is the most “sophisticated” research simulation tool available for developing AI, and less costly than using robot technology.

 “We’re trying to program it to learn, as opposed to programming it to accomplish specific tasks,” said Fernando Diaz, a senior researcher working at Microsoft’s New York laboratory, where the project is being developed.   

It is hoped reinforcement learning – recently trialled by Google's AlphaGo program - in particular will be successful, allowing AI agents to develop their own knowledge of how to complete a task through reacting to their environment.

This is not the first time video games has been used to improve AI software, however Microsoft claim the open structure of Minecraft means a number of situations can be simulated from first-person perspectives.

Matthew Johnson, the principal software engineer working on AIX states the benefits of this embodied AI are huge: “rather than have a situation where the AI sees an avatar of itself, it can actually be inside, looking out through the eyes of something that is living in the world. We think this is an essential part of building this kind of general intelligence."

Computer scientists and amateurs will be able to have a hand in developing the AI software in Minecraft from July onwards via an open-source license. The AIX platform consists of a mod for the Java version and code allowing AI agents to get feedback on the consequences of actions. The two components can run on Windows, Linux or Mac OS, and can be programmed in any language.

It is hoped that experimenters interacting with code and building structures will lead to being able to scale this “to include tasks that allow AI agents to learn to collaborate with humans and support them in a creative manner,” according to Katja Hofmann, lead of the Microsoft Research team.

"This provides a way to take AI from where it is today up to human-level intelligence, which is where we want to be, in several decades time."

In addition to the future development of robotics, Microsoft foresee that AIX could be used to spark children’s interest in AI, with simple programs allowing children to create agents being used as teaching materials.