Some of the more popular alternative AI training grounds are video games. AIs have been taught to play titles like Starcraft 2 and DOTA 2, and have become quite formidable opponents. Facebook is jumping on board this trend now, too, according to a research paper spotted by MIT Technology Review. In the paper, Facebook researcher Arthur Szlam and several other team members detail their work on a new AI assistant that's currently being trained within Minecraft.
The progress so far has been quite impressive. As you can see below, the AI responds to human inquiries, greetings, and directions in a seemingly realistic fashion. First, the player ("ScoobyDooby12") greets the bot, and after the bot responds, the player asks it -- directly in Minecraft's text chat system -- to build a circle at an indicated location.
The bot is quick to comply with the request and begins constructing a large vertical "circle" out of wooden plank blocks. While the bot is working, humans can ask it questions about its status, or compliment it on its work -- in both cases, it will respond with an appropriate remark.
So, why Minecraft? Apparently, the key challenge researchers are aiming to tackle with this training method is general competency. Sure, it's possible to train an AI to be fantastic at one specific task, but what if you could teach it to be a jack of all trades?
"Instead of superhuman performance on a single difficult task, we are interested in competency across a large number of simpler tasks, specified (perhaps poorly) by humans," said researchers.
That's where Minecraft comes in. The game is easy for even young children to pick up and learn, but it contains hidden depths of creativity and variety. Players can tame horses, cooperate with each other to take on tough bosses, construct impressive cities, meet and trade with villagers, and perform any number of other tasks. Due to this combination of simplicity and task variety, the game is the perfect place to train the sort of AI Facebook is interested in developing.
In the example explained above, the task was simple: create a circle. However, even that task requires quite a bit of training. First, the AI needs to know what a circle is in the context of Minecraft (since everything is made from blocks, a "perfect" circle is impossible to make), and second, it needs to be capable of understanding exactly where the player is pointing.
As requests get more complicated, such as "build a tower 15 blocks tall and then put a giant smiley on top" (to use MIT Technology Review's example), the AI will need even more training and knowledge to keep up. As such, Facebook's team of researchers have decided to enlist the aid of the public.
Facebook's in-development Minecraft assistant is already available for the average user to start fiddling with. Just visit the "craftassist" bot's Github page for installation instructions and a brief overview of the project.
We don't know for sure what Facebook's end goal is with the bot, but even if it never becomes anything more than a glorified Minecraft helper, that alone would be quite the exciting achievement. Minecraft is already being used across a wide variety of fields, including the realm of public education.
Throw an AI into the mix, and it may become possible to teach young students (or those who wish to play Minecraft but have motor disabilities) about AI in a much more engaging (and fun) manner. Only time will tell, of course, and we look forward to seeing how this AI progresses in the coming months and years.