Microsoft using Minecraft to experiment with AI technology

Microsoft has announced it will be testing the capabilities of artificial intelligence (AI) with Minecraft, following Google's milestone of beating the notorious board game Go with its DeepMind AI technology.

Starting in July, computer scientists will develop AI software using the virtual landscapes of Minecraft. To do this, researchers will install software platform AIX, which allows AI code to control a character within the game as researchers attempt to teach it more nuanced 'general intelligence'.

Katja Hofmann, leader of the project at Microsoft Research's Cambridge lab, said: "Minecraft is the perfect platform for this kind of research because it's this very open world.

"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 capabilities."

Last week, Google's AI program AlphaGo beat the world Go champion in its second consecutive victory against the human player. The test is designed to measure how far AI technology has come, with the number of possible positions in Go estimated to be more than the number of atoms in the observable universe.

"We're trying to program it to learn, as opposed to programming it to accomplish specific tasks," said Fernando Diaz, senior researcher, and member of the project."It's a digital playpen for artificial intelligence. It's an environment in which we can develop an algorithm for teaching a young artificial intelligence to learn different concepts in the world."

Right now, general users of the game will not be able to run these experiments, though the long-term goal of the project is for everyone to be able to interact with the code.

Evelyne Viegas, director of artificial intelligence outreach for Microsoft Research, added: "We're looking for opportunities where we can really help accelerate the pace of artificial intelligence innovation in a way that is going to be very close to the real world, with real experiences and real data."

The AIX software has been made available to a small group of academic researchers as well as Microsoft researchers and, from this summer, it will be available via an open-source license.

Professor Joe Hernandez-Orallo, an expert in AI from the Technical University of Valencia, told BBC News: "This is state of the art. At this moment, there is nothing comparable, and this is just in its beginnings, so I see many possibilities for it."

Seeing potential for the idea to equip young people with essential skills in artificial intelligence, he continued: "Kids could create agents in a world they are already fascinated with, and play with them. This could boost young people's interest in artificial intelligence, and we expect that in the next 10 to 20 years we are going to need more people working the area."

"Our focus, from the beginning, has been on making sure that there's the lowest possible barrier to innovation," Johnson added.

Caroline Preece

Caroline has been writing about technology for more than a decade, switching between consumer smart home news and reviews and in-depth B2B industry coverage. In addition to her work for IT Pro and Cloud Pro, she has contributed to a number of titles including Expert Reviews, TechRadar, The Week and many more. She is currently the smart home editor across Future Publishing's homes titles.

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