The sandbox world of Minecraft allows you build practically anything. Soon though, it won't be used simply to create spatial objects, but artificial intelligence systems. At least, that's Microsoft's plan, taking an project aiming to teach AI to make its own decisions and launching it as an open-source testbed.

Currently, Microsoft's internal study sees a small team of computer scientists trying to teach a virtual player how to navigate Mojang's blocky world. The AI has only the same available resources a flesh and blood player would have access to, and must learn from its mistakes.

The game is a surprisingly good starting point to help learning AIs develop. After all, Minecraft drops human players into a randomly generated world and abandons them with no instructions, leaving them to intuit their surroundings and start creating. Putting a virtual mind into the same scenario and trying to get it to figure things out theoretically works on the same principles as human development.

The Minecraft ‘agent' begins with zero knowledge, and no set objective. Through trial and error, such as walking into environmental hazards, it begins to build an objective and work towards it — in the case of Microsoft's study taking place in New York, reaching the highest point in the world. The AI begins to understand its role and progress via incremental rewards, while eliminating data that's irrelevant to its goal, such as time of day.

“We're trying to program it to learn, as opposed to programming it to accomplish specific tasks,” said Fernando Diaz, senior researcher on the project. “[Minecraft is] a digital playpen for artificial intelligence. 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 test is a part of the wider Project AIX, developed by Katja Hofman, a researcher working at Microsoft's Cambridge labs. Frustrated by the simplicity of other games used to develop AI, she wanted something more focused on adaptive learning.

“Minecraft is the perfect platform for this kind of research because it’s this very open world,” Hofmann said. “You can do survival mode, you can do ‘build battles' with your friends, you can do courses, you can implement our own games. This is really exciting for artificial intelligence because it allows us to create games that stretch beyond current abilities.”

The ultimate ambition is to make artificial intelligence more like general intelligence — that is, how we humans can combine our ‘programming' in different skills to achieve desirable results. Most AI development to date has focused on getting machines to do one task really well, whereas the freedom of Minecraft allows AIX to take a more exploratory approach.

“The things that seem really easy for us are actually the things that are really difficult for an artificial intelligence,” said Robert Schapire, one of the scientists currently working on the project.

AIX itself is currently available to academic researchers, but Microsoft will be making it widely available this summer. It consists of a mod for the Java version of Minecraft, and a piece of code that helps AI agents sense and act within the environment, growing in experience as it processes feedback from its own actions.

However, it's not seen as a consumer project, but rather a way to attract a broad range of researchers to experiment with AI development. It will be compatible with Windows, Linux and Mac OS, and more confident users can program their agents in “any programming language they are comfortable with”.

AI tests mean Minecraft will soon be able to play itself