Minecraft is one of those rare tech phenomenons that came out of the blue (a single person and a Java compiler in this case) and went on to somehow revolutionize its field. For the blocky building-survival simulator that field is definitely gaming, but by effectively redefining the sandbox genre, Minecraft has managed to affect an expected number of other fields as well.
Ever since its humble beginnings and especially after Microsoft took over and allowed it to really take off in popularity, the Minecraft world has been a canvas for incredible creativity with projects ranging from epic 1:1 scale reconstruction of buildings to working PC emulators inside a Minecraft map and even a functioning phone. But it is perhaps Microsoft itself that has managed to find the most exciting use of the sandbox to date.
It is called Project Malmo (formerly known an Project AIX) and its purpose is to experiment with and train artificial intelligence and advance cutting-edge technologies like machine learning and neural networks. The idea is that since Minecraft offers a complex system of interconnected variables and cause and effect logical chains, as well as various changing conditions and inputs to the player, it is perfect for experimenting with self-educating algorithms on various scales. To quote Katja Hofmann, Fernando Diaz and other people working on Project Malmo:
We’re trying to program it to learn, as opposed to programming it to accomplish specific tasks, … The things that seem really easy for us are actually the things that are really difficult for an artificial intelligence, … It’s hard to test some of this in practice, and that’s one of the main motivations for building the platform, … It’s an environment in which we can develop an algorithm for teaching a young artificial intelligence to learn different concepts in the world.
And you don’t need overly precise realism or hyper advanced graphics for all that. In fact, Minecraft’s simplicity and scaleability actually make it a perfectly approachable tool for AI and developers alike. And the best part is, Microsoft has just made Project Malmo open-source and free for everyone to use. Since the platform is effectively a Minecraft mod, it can run on Windows, Linux and OS X and supports just about every popular programming language out there. So, sinking your teeth into some AI fun shouldn’t really be all that hard. You can download Project Malmo at the source link below.