Microsoft is using an experimental version of its game Minecraft to test the limits of artificial intelligence.

Called Project Malmo (named after a Swedish city, as Minecraft originates out of Sweden), the new version of the game allows reinforcement-learning algorithms to control a character. Reinforcement algorithms, which are inspired by psychology, focus on putting artificial intelligences within a specific environment and letting them figure out how to gain further rewards. By making those rewards incremental, Microsoft researchers believe they can train the AI to learn goals.

Humans and Malmo in Minecraft

Humans and Malmo in Minecraft

Minecraft's sandbox nature could turn it into the perfect training ground for AI. Within the game, AI can learn how to get out of mazes or holes on its own, and how to collaborate. “Minecraft is very close to the real world in many ways,” said Jose Hernandez-Orallo, a professor at the Technical University of Valencia, Spain, who has been part of a private preview of Malmo that Microsoft has offered to scientists. “There are so many possibilities.”

Research like Malmo requires repeated testing and trial-and-error, which is why working in a virtual environment like Minecraft is better than the real world. Malmo's character often fall in lakes at this point, but it's cheaper to have virtual characters fall into virtual lakes than to build robots that would do the same thing.

A human player can also enter the experimental mode, and they can work together and chat through a window. While the researchers for the project see wider implications than Minecraft, Malmo could also affect the way the game is played. “In the long run I want to work toward AI that can be taught by any user to help them achieve their goals,” Katja Hoffman, a researcher at Microsoft Cambridge in the U.K. who leads the project, told theMIT Technology Review.

Towards that end, Microsoft has made Malmo open source. They've released the code on GitHub and are encouraging even novice coders to try their hands at helping an AI Minecraft player build a house or craft a sword. “If I come across some YouTube video showing off some exciting new functionality enabled by our mod,” says Matthew Johnson, the development lead on Malmo, “that would make my day.”

Microsoft's AI Is Playing Minecraft to Learn How the World Works