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Microsoft sees Minecraft as AI proving ground

Scientists can now use the popular game to let artificial intelligence systems learn how to do things.

The blocky look of Minecraft creations doesn't seem to bother these fellows.

Microsoft/Screenshot by ZDNet

The popular construction game Minecraft is due to become a testbed for artificial intelligence software designed by startups and scientists alike.

Minecraft, a game based on the notion of building blocks, is played by millions of people on consoles, PCs and phones. Developed by Stockholm-based Mojang, the game was snapped up by Microsoft in September 2014 for $2.5 billion, followed by the Redmond, Washington, software giant's acquisition of Teacher Gaming's MinecraftEdu line of teaching tools in January of this year.

The game has now gone far beyond its roots as a simple building game, and through mods and additional development can also be used as a tool to instruct students on topics including conservation and resource management.

The platform is now destined to contribute to the field of artificial intelligence as well.

An area of intensifying activity among technology companies, artificial intelligence is expected to greatly increase the ability of computers to perform sophisticated tasks. Just now showing up in small doses, such as in Facebook's image recognition capabilities and the Google AI program that has bested a human Go champion, it's expected to foster computers that can learn and think for themselves rather than just crunch numbers.

Microsoft said Sunday that a new platform, based on Minecraft and called Project AIX, is being used by scientists to "train" an AI system to learn how to do things in the Minecraft environment. The tester AI is being developed to be able to learn how to do things such as climb mountains in the virtual world -- although not without continual dives into lava and rivers.

"The agent starts out knowing nothing at all about its environment or even what it is supposed to accomplish," Microsoft said. "It needs to understand its surroundings and figure out what's important -- going uphill -- and what isn't, such as whether it's light or dark. [...] It needs to understand -- via incremental rewards -- when it has achieved all or part of its goal."

AIX came about after the lead researcher, Katja Hoffman, became frustrated with the limits of other programs available that can only use simple games to test AI agents.

Minecraft, in comparison, is considered sophisticated enough for deeper tests and is also far cheaper than building robots for testing in the physical realm.

"Minecraft is the perfect platform for this kind of research because it's this very open world," Hoffman said. "You can do survival mode, you can do 'build battles' with your friends, you can do courses, you can implement our own games."

The main problem with today's AI, Hoffman said, is going beyond tasks and into learning through the involvement of multiple sensors. This "general intelligence," which mimics how humans learn and make decisions, is complex and a far more daunting task to instill within computers than recognizing words and commands and storing information.

The platform consists of a mod for the Java Minecraft version as well as advanced code to assist AI in working with the Minecraft environment. The platform is compatible with Windows, Linux and Mac OS X, and researchers can tailor their artificial intelligence agents to run in whatever programming language they wish.

AIX is currently available to a handful of researchers in a private beta, but will be released to the open-source community in third quarter.

This story originally appeared at ZDNet under the headline "The world of Minecraft is now used for artificial intelligence innovation."