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David Bignell, Tim Hutton, Katja Hofmann and Matthew Johnson are part of the Minecraft artificial intelligence project. (Photo by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures, for Microsoft)
David Bignell, Tim Hutton, Katja Hofmann and Matthew Johnson are part of the Minecraft artificial intelligence project. (Photo by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures, for Microsoft)

Minecraft will be the backbone for a new platform designed to help test and improve artificial intelligence applications, Microsoft announced on Monday.

The new platform, called AIX, will be made available to researchers who are trying to help AI think with the same sophistication and complexity as humans, Microsoft explained in a post. In one example, a research team is using Minecraft to train an AI “agent” how to climb to the highest point in the virtual world, using the same types of resources as a human would when doing the same thing.

Microsoft MinecraftMinecraft is an attractive environment for AI testing and can become a research “playpen” because it presents endless possibilities, “ranging from simple tasks like walking around looking for treasure to complex ones like building a structure with a group of teammates,” the company said in the post, adding that the game is also a lot cheaper than building robots to try to navigate physical obstacle courses.

“The things that seem really easy for us are actually the things that are really difficult for an artificial intelligence,” said Robert Schapire, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research who is part of the team using AIX in Microsoft’s New York lab, in the Microsoft post.

Microsoft researchers and a small group of academics have been part of a private test period but the company will make the platform widely available via an open-source license sometime this summer.

Microsoft’s new platform comes as Google DeepMind’s AlphaGo AI program recently has generated a lot of media attention. In a contest of the ancient Chinese game of Go, Google’s program defeated champion Lee Sedol in three consecutive games, winning the $1 million five-game match. On Sunday, Sedol struck back with a consolation win.

Since buying Mojang, the company that developed Minecraft, in 2014, Microsoft has found multiple uses for the game. It became the bedrock of Microsoft’s educational strategy after the software giant also acquired MinecraftEdu, a version of the game created for the classroom. 

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