Video game characters

POKEDSTUDIO

STANDARDS

NGSS: Core Idea: ETS1.C

CCSS: Reading Informational Text: 2

TEKS: 6.3A, 7.3A, 8.3A, P.3A, P.3B

Training Ground

How the world of Minecraft is helping researchers create smarter computers

AS YOU READ, THINK ABOUT which functions of the human mind machines might have the hardest time replicating.

MINECRAFT

Every month, 112 million people around the world sit down at computers and video game consoles to play Minecraft. There’s no pre-defined goal to the game or levels to beat. Its popularity lies in the fact that players can create almost anything imaginable using blocks of materials, like brick, wood, steel, glass, and wool. They can construct an Eiffel Tower, a space shuttle, or even an entire city. Players navigate their characters through Minecraft’s virtual 3-D world as they build. Along the way, they encounter a variety of objects, creatures, and other players—one of which might soon be an artificial intelligence, or AI.

An AI is a computer system capable of performing tasks normally associated with the human mind, like understanding language, making decisions, and solving problems. Even if you haven’t met an AI in Minecraft yet, you may have interacted with one elsewhere, perhaps without realizing it. Self-driving cars rely on intelligent software to navigate without a driver’s input. Smart thermostats use AI to detect when people are home or away and adjust temperatures to keep residents comfortable while saving energy. Electronic AI assistants like Siri and Alexa respond to voice commands to find information, play music, or make calls.

Every month, 112 million people around the world all play the same game. They sit down at computers and video game consoles and turn on Minecraft. The game doesn’t have a certain goal or levels to beat. It’s popular because players can create almost anything they can think of. They use blocks of materials, like brick, wood, steel, glass, and wool. They can build an Eiffel Tower, a space shuttle, or even an entire city. Players move their characters through Minecraft’s virtual, 3-D world as they build. Along the way, they meet different objects, creatures, and other players. One of those players might soon be an artificial intelligence, or AI.

An AI is a computer system. It can perform tasks normally done by the human mind. For example, it might understand language, make decisions, or solve problems. Even if you haven’t met an AI in Minecraft, you may have come across one elsewhere. And you might not even have realized it. Self-driving cars use intelligent software to find their way around without a driver. Smart thermostats use AI to detect when people are home or away and then change temperatures. This keeps people comfortable while saving energy. Electronic AI assistants like Siri and Alexa listen to voice commands. They can find information, play music, or make calls. 

WONDERLANDSTOCK/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

GAMING PHENOMENON: Minecraft has sold more than 175 million copies since its launch in 2009.

Computer programmers have created AIs so advanced they can sometimes do things as well as— or better than—people. For example, AIs have painted pictures indistinguishable from those of human artists. They’ve defeated champion chess players and bested human contestants on a game show (see Key Moments: The Rise of Artificial Intelligence).

“But while an AI might be able to do one task really well, it can’t transfer its knowledge or skills to another task,” says Priyam Parashar, a graduate researcher in computer science at the University of California, San Diego.

A key goal for many AI creators today is to give their programs the ability to perform well in different situations and apply existing knowledge to new experiences, the way people do. “Working toward intelligences that can be trained in one area and transfer their knowledge to other domains is a hot topic,” says Parashar. That’s where video games, like Minecraft, come in. They provide a setting where an AI can practice this human skill.

Computer programmers have created very advanced AIs. Sometimes they can do things as well as people, or even better. For example, AIs have painted pictures that look the same as those of human artists. They’ve defeated champion chess players. And they’ve beaten human contestants on a game show (see Key Moments: The Rise of Artificial Intelligence).

 “But while an AI might be able to do one task really well, it can’t transfer its knowledge or skills to another task,” says Priyam Parashar. She’s a graduate researcher in computer science at the University of California, San Diego.

Today, many AI creators share a key goal. They want their programs to perform well in different situations and use their existing knowledge in new situations. That’s what people do. “Working toward intelligences that can be trained in one area and transfer their knowledge to other domains is a hot topic,” says Parashar. That’s where video games, like Minecraft, come in. They give an AI a place to practice this human skill. 

A PLACE TO PRACTICE

MINECRAFT

The ideal of an adaptable, multitalented learning system is known as general artificial intelligence. Programmers hope AIs can achieve this type of intelligence by facing challenges, making mistakes, and learning from them. People do this in everyday life all the time—we encounter problems and figure out solutions. But AIs are computer programs. They can’t experience and react to things in the real world like humans do. That is, unless they’re given a physical robotic body. But no one wants a bunch of intelligent robots let loose on the world before the kinks have been worked out. That’s where Minecraft comes in. It provides a perfect artificial environment where AIs can safely try out novel things. And if the programs make bad decisions or run amok, they won’t cause any real damage.

The idea of a learning system that can adapt to many different areas is known as general artificial intelligence. Programmers want AIs to gain this type of intelligence. They hope the systems will face challenges, make mistakes, and learn from them. People do this in everyday life. We run into problems and figure out solutions. But AIs are computer programs. They can’t experience and react to things in the real world like humans do. That is, unless they have a physical robotic body. But the problems with intelligent robots haven’t been worked out yet, so no one wants them let loose on the world. That’s where Minecraft comes in. It provides a perfect artificial setting where AIs can try new things safely. The programs might make bad decisions or run wild. But they won’t cause any real damage. 

Since Minecraft is an open-world game, players can go wherever and do whatever they please. And AIs, playing as characters in the game, can do the same. They get the chance to move through a 3-D world and see, touch, and manipulate objects. That gives scientists like Parashar the opportunity to test AIs they’re developing in different scenarios. For instance, she and her colleagues recently used the game to see how an AI would respond to an unexpected obstacle. They taught the AI to retrieve a block from an adjacent room in one of the world’s virtual buildings. The scientists provided the AI with an incentive to complete the task using reinforcement learning. “This approach is similar to training a dog by giving it a treat when it does what you want,” says Parashar. The AI received a reward of points whenever it succeeded.

Next, a researcher closed off the passage between the rooms with a glass block wall—a problem the AI had never encountered before. “The AI agent knows it was able to solve the task when the wall wasn’t there,” says Parashar. “So it considers how to make the new situation more like ones when it was able to get the block.” Eventually, the AI determined that it could break the glass and achieve its goal.

Minecraft is an open-world game, so players can go wherever and do whatever they please. If AIs play as characters in the game, they can do the same. They get the chance to move through a 3-D world. They can see, touch, and handle objects. That allows Parashar and other scientists to test their AIs in different situations. For example, how would an AI react to a sudden obstacle? She and her team recently used the game to find out. They taught an AI to get a block from the next room in a virtual building. The scientists used reinforcement learning. They gave the AI a reward to complete the task. “This approach is similar to training a dog by giving it a treat when it does what you want,” says Parashar. The AI got points when it succeeded.

Next, a researcher closed off the passage between the rooms with a glass block wall. The AI had never come across this problem before. “The AI agent knows it was able to solve the task when the wall wasn’t there,” says Parashar. “So it considers how to make the new situation more like ones when it was able to get the block.” Finally, the AI found a solution. It broke the glass and reached its goal. 

HUMAN HELPERS?

MINECRAFT

Minecraft also has a chat feature that allows players to communicate with one another. Researchers at Facebook are using this function to let an AI assistant they’ve developed for Minecraft practice talking with people. The developers want human players to be able to ask the assistant for help with building or other activities in the game (see A Chat With a Bot). The AI is labeled as a bot, so players know they’re not interacting with a real person.

The scientists’ goal is to improve the AI’s understanding of instructions given in natural language, meaning regular everyday speech. Normally, commands for a computer must be provided in a special programming language, or code. “Understanding natural language is a big challenge for AIs,” says Kavya Srinet, an AI engineer at Facebook and one of the lead researchers on the Minecraft assistant project. “But it’s an important part of being able to collaborate with humans. We also want the assistant to be fun to play with. We hope that if it makes silly mistakes while learning, it’s still amusing and engaging for players.”

For now, Facebook’s AI Minecraft assistant is being developed only for research purposes. But eventually, Srinet would love to see a similar program made widely available to any Minecraft player who wanted to try it out. In the future, a similarly trained helper AI might even be able to apply what it learned in a virtual world to real life. A robot with general artificial intelligence could someday assist people with tasks that go far beyond just stacking blocks.

Minecraft also has a chat feature, so players can communicate with each other. Researchers at Facebook have developed an AI assistant for Minecraft. They’re using the chat feature to let the AI practice talking with people. Human players can ask the assistant for help with building or other actions in the game (see A Chat With a Bot). The AI is labeled as a bot, so players know it’s not a real person.

The scientists want the AI to learn to better understand instructions given in natural language. That means regular everyday speech. Normally, commands for a computer must be in a special programming language, or code. “Understanding natural language is a big challenge for AIs,” says Kavya Srinet. She’s an AI engineer at Facebook and one of the lead researchers on the Minecraft assistant project. “But it’s an important part of being able to collaborate with humans. We also want the assistant to be fun to play with. We hope that if it makes silly mistakes while learning, it’s still amusing and engaging for players.”

For now, Facebook’s AI Minecraft assistant is being developed only for research. But Srinet would love to see that change. She hopes that someday, any Minecraft player could try out a program like it. In the future, a similar AI helper might even be able to use what it learned in a virtual world in real life. A robot with general artificial intelligence could help people with far bigger tasks than stacking blocks.  

DEFINING PROBLEMS: Describe one goal that AI researchers are currently working toward and one challenge they face in achieving it.

Back to top
videos (1)
Skills Sheets (3)
Skills Sheets (3)
Skills Sheets (3)
Lesson Plan (2)
Lesson Plan (2)