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The world of Minecraft is now used for artificial intelligence innovation

Can the popular game provide a cheap but effective way for startups to test artificial intelligence projects?

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Microsoft

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

Minecraft, a game based on construction and blocks, is played by millions of users on both consoles and the PC. Developed by Stockholm-based Mojang, the game was snapped up by Microsoft in September 2015 for $2.5 billion, followed up by the Redmond giant's acquisition of Teacher Gaming LLC's MinecraftEdu line of teaching tools in January 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 teaching tool to instruct students on topics including conservation and resource management.

However, the platform is now destined to contribute to the field of artificial intelligence.

Dubbed "Project AIX," Microsoft said on Sunday a new platform, based on Minecraft, is being used by scientists to "train" an AI to learn how to do things in the Minecraft environment. The tester AI is currently 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 says. "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 spawned after the lead researcher, Katja Hoffman, became frustrated with the limits of other programs available which are only able to use simple games to test AI agents.

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

Hoffman said:

"Minecraft is the perfect platform for this kind of research because it's this very open world. 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 main problem with today's AI, Hoffman says, 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 instil within computers than recognizing words, 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 summer.

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