Microsoft is offering three $20,000 grants to PhD students who can develop artificial-intelligence agents that excel at working with humans.
The competition is taking place inside Microsoft's Project Malmo, a special version of its hit game Minecraft, which lets researchers test algorithms to control its blockish characters and complete single-player tasks, such as looking for treasure, or collaborative tasks, like building a tower.
It's for the second capability that Microsoft is challenging PhD students to develop algorithms. It wants AI that "can learn to work with other randomly assigned players to achieve a high score in a mini-game within the virtual world".
Specifically, it wants AI agents that can learn to see someone else's goal and then learn what behaviors are helpful when collaborating on a common goal. It also wants to see how these agents can negotiate a share strategy for problem-solving.
The theme of the competition ties in with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella's recent efforts to quell fears that AI will replace humans at work. He recently said Microsoft and its rivals should steer AI away from displays of power that freak workers out and instead focus on technology that help improve human capabilities.
"The field of collaborative AI research involves the development of technologies that work with, empower and augment human capabilities," said Microsoft Research's John Roach, announcing the new challenge.
"The ability to collaborate is key to the development of a general AI that can mimic the nuanced and complex way humans learn and make decisions. Such an AI would represent an evolution from task-specific AI technologies that recognize speech, translate languages and caption images."
The Malmo Collaborative AI Challenge is open to teams of up to three from across the globe. Participants are given a task that consists of one or more mini-games. One of these is the Malmo Pig Chase.
The Pig Chase is a take on 'Stag hunt' or 'Trust dilemma' from game theory, which allows individuals to choose between hunting a meaty but hard-to-catch stag, or going it alone and hunting a hare. The game illustrates the conflict between safety and social collaboration.
Microsoft's Pig Chase involves two Minecraft characters and a pig wandering a small meadow. The agents can choose to catch the pig and receive a high reward or give up and receive a smaller reward.
Three winning teams will be awarded $20,000 each. If members are from the European Economic Area and Switzerland, they're also eligible to win spots at the Microsoft Research AI Summer School.