Microsoft is using Minecraft to develop artificial intelligence tech for the real world

Yet more proof that Minecraft is more than just a game comes our way today. Microsoft already has plans to use the platform, which it bought for $2.5 billion, to help kids learn and for virtual reality, and now we can add artificial intelligence development to that list, too.

Today, Microsoft announced a project that enables artificial intelligence researchers to tap into the hit title to sculpt and develop their tech. AIX is a new software development platform that researchers can use to develop ‘agents’ — AI-powered characters — which roam Minecraft worlds. The idea is to equip them with the smarts to behave like a regular player. So that includes basic commands, such as climbing up a hill, and more complicated requirements like navigating varied terrain, building out landscapes and just surviving from the game’s vicious zombies.

Katja Hofmann, who leads the project, explained that Minecraft’s openness and creativity present larger opportunities to explore and develop AI than currently exist. That’s not unlike the reasons why Google-owned DeepMind has focused on Go, having just defeated a legendary human champion of the Asian strategy game over a five game series.

“Minecraft is the perfect platform for this kind of research because it’s this very open world,” Hofmann said. “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.”

AIX and Minecraft isn’t just about developing AI agents to exist in the game, Hofmann said the goal is to train the technology to learn from itself — just as DeepMind’s AI technology does when it plays Go.

And, trivial though it may sound to non-players, Minecraft has all the ingredients to train AI agents and technology for the real world.

“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,” Microsoft explained in a blog post.

Beyond just AI researchers and top boffins, Microsoft aims to bring AI and IT to new audiences. The company told the BBC that it wants to encourage “people of all skills and ages to get involved.” Knowing how much kids love Minecraft, this could be a compelling way to get young people learning while having fun at the same time.

Microsoft has already invited a handful of members of the academic community to test AIX and, with plans to make the software available via an open-source license this summer, anyone will be able to access it soon.