Microsoft's Minecraft 'robo-gym' for super smart AI

Microsoft lets AI robots free in digital environment

Microsoft is using Minecraft to test its robots' AI skills, by sipping into the virtual environment to see how they react to situations.

The project forms part of Microsoft Labs' Project Malmo, a platform made available for developers to use to test artificial intelligence. It's been available to developers since earlier this year and was created at Microsoft's Cambridge-based lab.

The AI figures are set free into an optimised Minecraft environment, which helps users teach their virtual robots how to move and avoid hazards, including obstacles. AI 'agents' can interact with other virtual people, use tools and create objects of their own to make them more intelligent through learning.

Microsoft explained the use of Minecraft helps their agents learn much faster without a huge outlay, potentially speeding up time to market.

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"A question in artificial intelligence is how we get AIs to learn how to interact in a complex environment, to experiment in a wide range of settings," Katja Hofmann, lead researcher on Microsoft Research Lab's Project Malmo told Wired. "There's really a need for an experimentation platform."

Using Minecraft's virtual environment has the opportunity to change the entire AI sector because it's moving away from the traditional model of programming AI using algorithms to essentially force the input of information. Instead, it uses a more natural way of learning by experience and by making mistakes, just like humans. It also allows for the agents to be praised when they do something correctly, again taking cues from human learning.

"We're using Malmo to investigate how AI could learn from people, from human feedback," she added. "For example, in Minecraft, you could imagine teaching the agent a new skill, then giving it feedback every time it does something correctly."

Hofmann explained Minecraft was the chosen platform for Microsoft's research because it was more 'versatile' than other virtual gaming platforms and dismissed the idea that it was the default environment because its developer Mojang was bought by the tech giant in 2014.

"It would be nice to say we were planning this all along," says Hofmann. "In fact, we only realised later on how Minecraft could be a fantastic platform for AI experimentation."

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