Games and artificial intelligence have always gone hand in hand. AI has permeated all kinds of non-trivial games, even going as far back as the original Pac-man arcade game. Now, computer scientists are turning the tables around, sort of. More and more researchers are actually using games to fuel and aid artificial intelligence research, most of the time by beating the game. But Project AIX from Microsoft Research is doing something different with Minecraft. It is using the open, world building game to let an AI learn how to climb a mountain. Without falling into a pool of lava.
It might sound rather simplistic given what many people accept AI to be capable of doing. It is even more trivial in light of Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo beating the world Go champ thrice so far. But according to AI researcher Katja Hofmann, part of the team behind Project AIX, it is a difference between teaching a computer what to do and letting a computer learn it from scratch.
Today’s computer AI’s are great at taking input and learning from them, like how to take search queries into answers or recognize spoken words, as long as they already know what to do with them. They aren’t so good, however, when it comes to integrating multiple input sources, for example, sensory input, and learning how to accomplish a task it has never learned before. Even an infant can beat an AI in, for example, learning how to climb, enough to get out of his or her play pen. That process, which researchers call general intelligence, is one of the core focuses of artificial intelligence. It is also one of the hardest to test.
Taking again, for example, the task of learning how to climb a mountain. Designing a robot for that purpose will be terribly expensive, as the constant falling (not into lava or rivers) will require no small amount of repairs. Testing general intelligence in a a real-world search engine, on the other hand, is impractical as users expect a good amount of accuracy and usefulness. That is where Minecraft comes in. Sure, you can use a game like Super Mario as well, but, for one, you are limited to the specific side scrolling gameplay that it allows. Secondly, the iconic yet ancient game isn’t exactly open for modification.
In stark contrast, Minecraft is so open that you can do almost anything in it. Here we can see Microsoft’s investment in buying it finally paying off beyond mere sales of the game. Minecraft is making its way to more than just entertainment uses and into classrooms and, now, computer science research. Project AIX is currently available in private beta for academic researchers but will soon be released under an open source license for the rest of the world.