Katja Hofmann and Matthew Johnson, Project Malmo
Minecraft has been stimulating minds and capturing human hearts for a number of years now. Until recently, it was only us, but given the current rate of advance for artificial intelligence, it was just a matter of time before the game could help AI as well. The folks over at Project Malmo are using Minecraft as a platform to develop better Artificial Intelligence, and they’ve made their open source tool-set available to the public today!
For all of its cleverness, most AI are fairly specialized to a single set of focused tasks. They can be taught to understand or translate speech, identify faces and generate text. That said, the single biggest hurdle facing AI is creating them in such a way that they can teach themselves about anything. To achieve “artificial general intelligence” - not simply computers with an ability to solve individual problems, but digital minds that absorb all sorts of information from the world and combine this knowledge creatively - is the ambitious end-goal right now. As an example: most game AI, even rudimentary ones, are perfectly capable of beating human players at games. What they can't understand is how that person feels if they win, or lose, or how to act in either scenario. They just play.
Minecraft, it turns out, is a pretty great proving ground for AI: it’s an open-ended game with hugely diverse challenges and opportunities for creative solutions, spatial and temporal reasoning, collaboration and more. In other words, it shares a lot of the challenges we face in the real world, and to be good at it you need to combine a lot of different kinds of knowledge: from the basics of navigation to understanding social dynamics.
Social dynamics? Absolutely! Ever been on a multiplayer server? Whether it's obvious or not, every community has a culture to it, and we learn that culture the more we are immersed in it. Ways of speaking, behaving, hierarchies, overall feeling/attitude of the group - all of those essential elements in human social interaction are strongly at play in such communities. That we can learn them at all - saying nothing of acting appropriately within them - is largely out of reach for most AI. At least, for the moment.
Getting AI to combine strategies for different problems in the creative way humans do is one of the major hurdles on the way to achieving similar levels of smarts. Minecraft is an ideal platform for this sort of learning, and the hope is that, through Project Malmo, the game will provide researchers the world over with a single richly interactive test-bed, across which it is easy to compare different approaches or foster collaboration.
You can read more about the project here, or simply jump in and try out the mod for PC / Mac edition. You do need to be able to code, but the team say it’s pretty accessible for novices. The Minecraft community is a notoriously creative lot, and seeing what may come of this project is definitely a point of interest!