How Microsoft plans to build human-like robots using Minecraft

Microsoft is bringing artificial intelligence to the masses, releasing a project that allows Minecraft programmers of any level to create their own human-like robot. 

Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
Microsoft is making its Project Malmo source code available for performing artificial intelligence experiments in Minecraft.

The popular computer game Minecraft can help make artificial intelligence (AI) of the future more human-like, say developers at Microsoft Research. 

Through Project Malmo, all Minecraft users can now create their own AI. And not only will this project help educate novice and advanced programmers alike, but it will also help educate AI itself.

In the world of Minecraft, AI can better learn from experience, eventually holding conversations and making decisions on the level of humans.   

“Minecraft is very close to the real world in many ways,” said Jose Hernandez-Orallo, a professor at the Technical University of Valencia, Spain, in a Microsoft blog post. “There are so many possibilities.”

Typically strategies for teaching AI human ways involve equations, signals and rules. But “They’re just statistical patterns, and there’s no connection to any experience,” says Microsoft researcher Katja Hofmann. To really learn, AI needs to be free to make mistakes in a real world setting.

“Or at least an artificial one,” notes Slash Gear. Instead of making expensive robots repeatedly fall of cliffs in order to learn how to stay away from a cliff’s edge, now “you only need to program virtual bots in Minecraft to do so,” saving money and time.

Project Malmo was first released to a small group of computer scientists in March under the name AIX. The project was made available to all programmers on GitHub via an open-source license on Friday.

Professor Hernandez-Orallo says Project Malmo is especially helpful to AI development because it allows researchers to compare theories in a controlled environment – a development that he says “is music to my ears.” 

By working in the same space, researchers will be able to compare their ideas with others to promote best practices while ruling out failed theories.

“There’s no question that it vastly speeds up the research process,” says Matthew Johnson, a developer with Project Malmo. 

“It’s accelerating the pace of those experiments,” adds Evelyne Viegas, director of AI outreach at Microsoft.

Other developers on Project Malmo point out the project’s broad appeal. Not only will advanced computer scientists improve their AI systems, but Project Malmo can also introduce inexperienced coders to the world of programming.

And while Project Malmo is mostly intended for advanced coders and academic research, only modest programming experience is necessary. Some professors, like Hernandez-Orallo, plan to incorporate Project Malmo into their lesson plans because Minecraft-based lesson plans will likely seem much more exciting to students than learning from research papers. 

"If I come across some YouTube video showing off some exciting new functionality enabled by our mod," says Johnson, "that would make my day." 

Microsoft bought Mojang, the Swedish developer of Minecraft, for $2.5 billion in 2014. And last month Minecraft became the second best-selling video game of all time with 107 million copies sold. Tetris comes in first place with about 500 million sales and Grand Theft Auto V follows in third place with 65 million sales.

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