Project Malmo uses Minecraft to help AI learn about the real world in an unreal one

Microsoft has made some interesting moves in the education space as far as Minecraft is concerned. Notably, the company acquired Mojang for $2.5 billion in September 2015 and then later purchased MinecraftEdu in January this year with an announcement that Minecraft Education Edition would be available in summer.

Leading on from these acquisitions, a team within Microsoft developed Project AIX to simulate a world where an AI can be tested out without posing a risk to humans. Originally designed as an internal tool, the company announced that it would be made fully available under an open-source license.

Now, with a new name, the company has publicly unveiled Project Malmo, which has been described as "a platform that uses the world of Minecraft as a testing ground for advanced artificial intelligence research." It is comprised of two components: a mod for the Java version of Minecraft and additional code that enables AI agents to become aware of and operate within the environment.

You may be wondering, why Minecraft of all things? It may seem like a bizarre choice but, according to Marsh Davies from Mojang:

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.

One major convenience of the public release of Project Malmo is the new ability to overclock the environment, allowing experiments to execute and complete in a shorter space of time. This capability, originally absent from the private preview, is critical given the iterative and incremental nature of AI research. Leveraging Minecraft also enables a given environment to be used as a baseline in order to compare how different AIs, or even different versions of the same AI, perform relative to each other.

Project Malmo is now available on GitHub for Windows, Linux or MacOS. Microsoft also said that "programmers can use any programming language they are comfortable with."

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