Recently we were all amazed and, admittedly, slightly frightened, as Google’s AI called AlphaGo played Go against world champion Lee Se-dol and emerged victorious more than once. The algorithms behind AlphaGo are inspired by the human mind, allowing it to learn from experience; it didn’t beat Lee Se-dol because it was programmed to win, it learned strategies by playing the game itself. AI such as AlphaGo that can learn like a human is an exciting branch of technology and if a recent announcement from Microsoft is anything to go by, it’s one we’re determined to develop further in some interesting ways.
According to Microsoft, a team of their researchers is using the world of Minecraft to try and train an AI character to learn how to do things like climb to the highest point in the game’s world, adapting its actions through a process of trial and error. There’s been plenty of falling into lava pits. “We’re trying to program it to learn, as opposed to programming it to accomplish specific tasks,” said Fernando Diaz, a senior researcher and one of the people working on the project.
The researchers say the world of Minecraft is the perfect platform for what they’re doing because it removes many of the limitations that can arise when practically testing general artificial intelligence. For one thing, with Minecraft the team don’t have to worry about the expense of building a real robot and repairing it every time it fails to accomplish a physical task because a Minecraft character can move, interact with its environment, and feedback the results of these interactions just like a robot.
The Minecraft platform also makes for an appealing testing ground because it’s an open world, with different modes of play which allow the researchers to create their own obstacle courses and their own games in order to steadily adjust the environment’s difficulty level as the AI learns.
“It’s a digital playpen for artificial intelligence,” Diaz said. “It’s an environment in which we can develop an algorithm for teaching a young artificial intelligence to learn different concepts in the world.”
The whole thing is possible because of AIX, a platform developed by Katja Hofmann and her colleagues in Microsoft’s UK Cambridge lab, which allows the AI agents to sense and act within the Minecraft game world. Right now the software is under private beta, but this summer the plan is to make AIX available via an open-source license. According to Hoffman the goal from the beginning was to create a system that wouldn’t only be useful to Microsoft, but also the wider AI research community.
The team hope that by making the platform openly available they’ll attract a broad range of AI researchers from all programming skill levels to “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.” Hoffman even thinks using the Minecraft platform could be a good way for researchers to “experiment with how humans and artificially intelligent agents could work together.” To me, this seems like a good way to teach them how to defeat us.