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Microsoft to use Minecraft as a classroom for new AI systems

Microsoft announced the project, known as AIX, in a company blog post today. Project AIX is on a mission to build more intelligent technology by introducing AI to the most popular video game ever created, Swedish developer Mojang’s Minecraft.
The title was bought by Microsoft for $2.5 billion in 2014. It has since used the game several times when demonstrating emerging technologies, building impressive prototype versions for its HoloLens holographic headset and the Oculus Rift. It now wants to take Minecraft even further, using the game to teach artificial intelligence to mimic humans.
AIX is a software development platform that allows AI researchers to build “agents” for use in Minecraft worlds. These agents are AI-powered characters that can navigate around the world, traversing its terrain in a similar manner to a real player.
The idea may sound familiar. Many games already have AI-powered characters, including Minecraft itself. The important point is that here the AI will be able to learn new routines, something the static non-player characters of games cannot do.
Minecraft is an incredibly open and diverse world, procedurally generated with trillions of possible permutations. A human player will be able to scale a hill regardless of its shape, picking a route to the summit and jumping and walking until they get there. The team wants to build an AI that can do the same, creating an agent able to navigate every world regardless of its exact design.
“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,” said Microsoft.
“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.”
Project AIX was developed at the Microsoft Research Lab in Cambridge, UK. It was unveiled publicly for the first time today but is already in use internally at Microsoft. The team using AIX to train Minecraft characters is based in New York City and works with the project’s developers in Cambridge to expand the platform’s capabilities.
AIX will allow artificial intelligence to “learn” more generally than it can today. Current systems can be taught how to perform one task but are unable to combine different tasks together or apply them to a complex scenario. Humans do this instinctively and with an ease that still isn’t fully understood. AIX wants to replicate this learning, the skills that once acquired enable a Minecraft player to navigate any hill they come across, in artificial intelligence.
Minecraft is being used for testing due to its open environment and endless possibilities. It enables researchers to test AI systems in new ways as it has historically proven difficult to find a practical way to test a robot.
“Building a robot and trying to teach it to climb a real hill is costly and impractical; unlike in Minecraft, you’d have to repair or replace the robot with another costly machine each time it fell into a river,” explains Microsoft. The Minecraft world has the same natural features as the real world but it is possible to recover from an error that would otherwise spell the end of costly hardware.
Project AIX isn’t all about Minecraft though. Later in the summer, a public beta will be released that will allow artificial intelligence researchers worldwide to begin using the system in their own development, creating more lifelike AIs with human behaviour.

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