What started out as a rather simple, open-ended sandbox and survival game has turned into something more than what creater Markus “Notch” Persson probably imagined. Although Minecraft remains a virtual world where people can let their creativity run wild, it has also become a tool that can be used for the common good. In addition to using Minecraft for educational purposes, Microsoft has also turned it into a research tool. Project Malmo, formerly called Project AIX, uses Minecraft’s open world for artificial intelligence research and is now available as open source for everyone to use.
Despite recent advancements in the field of artificial intelligence, some experts might argue that we are far from the ideal, and dreaded, self-learning AI. Much of what we have today are focused on the analysis of signals and comparison with established rules. In the words of Katja Hofmann, a researcher in Microsoft’s Cambridge lab and part of the Malmo team, “they’re just statistical patterns”.
Real learning takes a different kind of route, a route that requires a good amount of trial and error, and lots and lots of error. There are, however, some things that can’t simply be simulated with algorithms, numbers, or walls of text. Things like learning how to build tools, learning how not to walk off a cliff to your death, and learning how to climb a mountain, needs a real world settings.
Or at least an artificial one.
Luckily for these researchers, Microsoft owns Minecraft, which presents the perfect setting for inexpensive AI research. Whereas one would have to use pricey robots to learn the aforementioned lessons, you only need to program virtual bots in Minecraft to do so. No harm, no foul.
Project Malmo is available now on GitHub under Microsoft’s own Open Source license. It basically consists of a Minecrat mod and other code for creating AI agents, a.k.a. bots. Getting it installed on Windows, Linux, and macOS is a bit involved, but the team behind it does provide clear step-by-step instructions on how to go about it. The project is open to anyone with a curiosity for AI, even those with basic programming knowledge only.