Since fully launching in 2011, Minecraft has captured the imaginations of millions of gamers and non-gamers alike with its unique brand of immersive, open and addictive gameplay, and has become a bona fide global sensation and household name in the process. But it now appears that Minecraft isn't just ideal for whiling away entire evenings or building obscenely accurate renderings of fictional locations; it's also a fantastic environment to develop artificial intelligence, and its open-source nature is allowing for easy collaboration between scientists spread all over the world.
Unless you're a computer scientist, you probably haven't heard of Project Malmo before. The project is dedicated to improving A.I. by using the world of Minecraft as an experimental platform and has, up until now, only been accessible to a select group of lucky computer geeks. Now, however, Microsoft is allowing the platform to be utilized by programmers through an open source license.
Aside from the obvious advantage of being able to get away with playing Minecraft in the office and call it "work", the platform is also allowing for significant process in the field of artificial intelligence. Katja Hofmann, who leads the program from Cambridge in the United Kingdom, claims that Project Malmo is being used to improve an A.I.'s ability to communicate meaningfully, make decisions and carry out detailed tasks using a technique called 'reinforcement learning', a system whereby A.I.s are allowed to complete a task using trial and error and then rewarded when they perform the correct actions.
According to Hoffman, Project Malmo aims to tackle some of artificial intelligence's trickier aspects.
"We’re trying to put out the tools that will allow people to make progress on those really, really hard research questions... We’ve trained the artificial intelligence to identify patterns in the dictation, but the underlying technology doesn’t have any understanding of what those words mean."
In order to try and develop A.I. that can understand and not merely interpret human words, Project Malmo is adding features that will allow programmers to create bots that can converse with each other, as well as other players in the game, and the A.I. will be required to safely navigate the hazardous world of Minecraft using its own intelligence. Bots will also make use of Mincraft's focus on building and craft by creating weapons and items in-game.
Of course many may wonder how exactly developing an A.I. that can construct a digital sword within a videogame will be of any use in the real world but Jose Hernandez-Orallo, another of the project's contributors, assures that "Minecraft is very close to the real world in many ways". Theoretically, if an A.I. can build items in Minecraft and communicate effectively with other bots, those principals can be used to create programs that can perform complex real-world tasks such as cooking, driving and even carrying out operations. Hernandez-Orallo also hopes that integrating computer science with Minecraft will capture the imaginations of many budding programmers at an educational level and help nurture the next generation of researchers.