Computer scientists at Microsoft have developed a new artificial intelligence platform atop the hugely popular video game Minecraft. Dubbed AIX, the platform hooks into Minecraft and allows the AI to take control of a character and learn from its actions. It's early days for the project; so far, the scientists have been hard at work getting the the AI to learn to climb a hill.

It's a simple enough task to program directly, but for an AI that starts out knowing nothing at all about its environment or what it's supposed to be doing, that's a big ask. The AI not only needs to understand its surroundings, but it also needs to figure out the difference between day and night, why walking on lava is probably a bad idea, and when exactly it has achieved its goal via a system of rewards.

Microsoft's AI isn't quite there yet, but those wanting to program their own can do so this summer when the AIX software will be released for free and as open-source code. Budding programmers and researchers need only purchase a licence for the Java version of the game, which currently goes for £17.95 ($26.95/€19.95). AIX will run on Windows, Linux, or Mac OS, and researchers can programme their AI in any programming language they like. The only proviso is that AI experiments won't be able to interact with other players online—at least not yet.

“People build amazing structures that do amazing things in Minecraft, and this allows experimenters to put in tasks that will stretch AI technology beyond its current capacity,” project lead Katja Hofmanntold the BBC. “But eventually, we will be able to scale this up further to include tasks that allow AI agents to learn to collaborate with humans and support them in a creative manner. This provides a way to take AI from where it is today up to human-level intelligence, which is where we want to be, in several decades time.”

While Microsoft says it's entirely possible to program an AI, stick it inside a robot, and have that try to climb a real-world hill, it's an extremely costly experiment—particularly if (when) the AI fails and the robot tumbles down the hill. Minecraft also offers a number of different AI learning opportunities that aren't always easy to try in the real world, including combat and building. Sure, the odd physics of theMinecraft world might not be reflective of the real world, but the complex decisions and consequences inherent to playing Minecraft may make it easier for AI to learn similar concepts.

AI research has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, but it typically focuses on having a computer learn a specific task, whether that's beating humans in Jeopardy, or, uhh, beating humans at the game of Go. Microsoft says that by using Minecraft researchers will be able to create AI that's more adept at “general intelligence,” learning in a similar way to humans by parsing information from light, smell, sound, and touch.

“[Minecraft] allows you to have 'embodied AI',” AIX software engineer Matthew Johnson told the BBC. “So, rather than have a situation where the AI sees an avatar of itself, it can actually be inside, looking out through the eyes of something that is living in the world. We think this is an essential part of building this kind of general intelligence.”

This post originated on Ars Technica UK

Microsoft is using Minecraft to train AI and wants you to help out