Microsoft researchers are playing Minecraft to train AI

While artificial intelligence has made great strides — translating, writing captions, and performing tasks just as well as,  if not better than, humans — there’s still a need for computer systems to understand in the same capacity as humans.

That’s why a team of five computer scientists from Microsoft’s Research Lab have been playing Minecraft. Although playing a game seems like a silly way to achieve this goal, the team is trying to train an artificial intelligence agent to actually learn how to perform tasks, such as climb to the highest point of a hill within the game, in the same way a human does when he or she learns a new task.

Microsoft team memberdDavid Bignell, Tim Hutton, Katja Hofmann and Matthew Johnson are working on the AIX project. ((mage Credit: Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures)
Microsoft team memberdDavid Bignell, Tim Hutton, Katja Hofmann and Matthew Johnson are working on the AIX project. ((mage Credit: Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures)

The system starts off  knowing nothing the environment or what it is supposed to accomplish and then needs to comprehend its surroundings and figure out the important factors. So far, trial and error seems to play a major role, so the character will fall into rivers and lava pits often while trying to climb up hill. By means of incremental rewards it starts to learn when it has achieved a portion of or all of its goal.

“We’re trying to program it to learn, as opposed to programming it to accomplish specific tasks,” said Fernando Diaz, a senior researcher in the New York lab who is working on the project.

The project employs a computer platform called AIX, which was developed by Microsoft’s Cambridge, UK, lab, that allows computer scientists to enter the world of Minecraft for testing and conducting research toward AI improvements.

While Microsoft researchers are using AIX for their own research, they have made it available to a small group of researchers under a private beta and this summer it will be available as an open-source license.

Why Minecraft?

According to Microsoft, Minecraft is ideal for artificial intelligence research because it offers users a ton of possibilities, anything from simple tasks like walking around and searching for treasure to complex ones like building structures with teammates.

In the Minecraft environment.

“Minecraft is the perfect platform for this kind of research because it’s this very open world,” said Katja Hofmann, who developed AIX along with her team members at Microsoft Cambrdige, UK. “You can do survival mode, you can do ‘build battles’ with your friends, you can do courses, you can implement our own games. This is really exciting for artificial intelligence because it allows us to create games that stretch beyond current abilities.”

The platform is made of a mod for the Java version and code for artificial intelligence agents to sense and act in Minecraft.

The hope is that it will draw in many researchers and even amateurs with different kinds of programming skills to help artificial intelligence expand and grow.

Don’t get too excited, though, Minecraft players. The platform is not for consumer and entertainment use and was only developed for research purposes.

Learn more on Microsoft’s Blog.

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