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Microsoft Using Minecraft to Teach its AI to Learn

This story originally appeared on PCMag

One small step for a Minecraft character is one giant leap for artificial intelligence.

Minecraft | Xbox Store

The Microsoft Research team in New York City spends its days trying to train an AI agent to learn how to complete virtual functions using the same resources humans have when learning a new task.

Running the new AIX platform -- developed in Redmond's Cambridge, England, lab -- five computer scientists use the Minecraft world as a testing ground.

The artificial intelligence agent starts with no knowledge of its surroundings, or what it is meant to accomplish. It needs to think for itself to understand the environment, and determine what is important -- like going uphill -- and what isn't -- like the time of day.

"The things that seem really easy for us are actually the things that are really difficult for an artificial intelligence," Robert Schapire, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, said in a statement.

Like a baby taking its first steps, the Minecraft character will endure a lot of trial and error, including falling into rivers and lava pits (OK, not exactly like a human child). And, as if training a puppy to fetch, the researchers provide their AI with incremental rewards when it achieves all or part of its goal.

"We're trying to program it to learn, as opposed to programming it to accomplish specific tasks," senior researcher Fernando Diaz said.

Microsoft acquired Minecraft maker Mojang in the fall of 2014 for a reported $2.5 billion. In the months since, Redmond has found inventive and educational ways to use its new toy, partnering with Code.org to launch a Minecraft-themed coding tutorial, and gearing up for the summer release of Minecraft: Education Edition.

Even professionals are using the program, citing its "endless possibilities" -- from simple tasks like looking for treasure to complex ones like building a structure with teammates.

"Minecraft is the perfect platform for this kind of research because it's this very open world," AIX developer creator Katja Hofmann said, praising features like survival mode, friendly battles and courses.

"It's a digital playpen for artificial intelligence," Diaz added. "It's an environment in which we can develop an algorithm for teaching a young artificial intelligence to learn different concepts in the world."


But while artificial intelligence has made great strides toward the robot revolution, computers still struggle with what researchers call general intelligence -- the nuanced and complex way humans learn and make decisions.

"A computer algorithm may be able to take one task and do it as well or even better than an average adult, but it can't compete with how an infant is taking in all sorts of inputs -- light, smell, touch, sound, discomfort -- and learning that if you cry chances are good that Mom will feed you," Microsoft said in a blog post.

The Microsoft Research team is using AIX for its own studies, but have also made the platform available to a small group of academic researchers under a private beta. AIX, however, is going mainstream, accessible this summer via an open-source licence.

Written By

Stephanie began as a PCMag reporter in May 2012. She moved to New York City from Frederick, Md., where she worked for four years as a multimedia reporter at the second-largest daily newspaper in Maryland. She interned at Baltimore magazine and graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania (in the town of Indiana, in the state of Pennsylvania) with a degree in journalism and mass communications.