Microsoft announces Minecraft-powered AI experiment platform

March 14, 2016 // 11:01 a.m.

Tags: #ai #artificial-intelligence #deep-learning #education #katja-hoffman #learning #microsoft #microsoft-research #minecraft #mojang #open-source #project-aix #software

Microsoft Research has announced an innovative artificial intelligence project based around one of its newer acquisitions: the voxel-'em-up smash hit Minecraft.

Acquired back in 2014 when Microsoft bought creator Mojang for a whopping $2.5 billion, Minecraft is no stranger to education. Even before the company released Minecraft Education Edition the software had seen plenty of classroom use: the game is installed throughout all Northern Irish schools, has a geological map add-on from the British Geological Survey, and even comes bundled with Raspbian for the Raspberry Pi - though, sadly, only as an extremely buggy alpha port which saw just one release in 2012 before being entirely abandoned by Mojang.

Now, Microsoft has announced a new Minecraft-based project from its Research arm: Project AIX, described by the company as an experimental platform for AI. The five-person team behind the project, Microsoft's announcement explains, has a simple goal in mind: having a Minecraft character climb a hill. The science behind actually achieving that, though, is harder than it sounds.

'The team is trying to train an artificial intelligence agent to learn how to do things like climb to the highest point in the virtual world, using the same types of resources a human has when she learns a new task,' explained Microsoft's Allison Linn of the project. 'That means that the agent starts out knowing nothing at all about its environment or even what it is supposed to accomplish. 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 endure a lot of trial and error, including regularly falling into rivers and lava pits. And it needs to understand – via incremental rewards – when it has achieved all or part of its goal.'

While AIX began life as an internal tool at Microsoft Research, the company has chosen to make it more widely available in an effort to boost research and development around teaching computers to learn rather than carry out tasks by rote. Previously, the software was only available to selected academic institutions under a proprietary licence; from this summer, that will change with AIX being made freely available to all under an as-yet unspecified open source licence.

'Minecraft is the perfect platform for this kind of research because it’s this very open world,' claimed Kataj Hofmann, who came up with the idea four years ago. '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.'
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