Facebook Wants Gamers to Play Minecraft With Its AI-Powered Bot

By David Axe
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Players of Minecraft just got a little bit of help exploring, digging, building and fighting in the popular game’s sprawling open world. 

A team of researchers at Facebook’s research wing has created an artificial intelligence that can accompany human players on their Minecraft adventures. 

The A.I., which in the game looks just like a human-controlled character, answers to verbal commands from the player who downloaded it. 

While it’s mining tunnels, gathering raw materials, building fortresses and battling zombies, the A.I. bot also is learning what people want and how they talk. And, in some cases, gathering data for Facebook’s researchers.

The researchers aim to create smarter, more intuitive A.I. that understands human beings the way human beings really talk. We don’t say, “Halt and await further command.” We say, “Hey, hang out here a minute.” And by that we don’t necessarily mean one actual minute.

Researchers call this kind of communication “natural language.”

If the Minecraft project works out, it could feed into a wide-ranging effort across industry, academia, and government to develop computer assistants that seamlessly integrate into people’s daily lives.

“At a high level, what we care about is how can A.I. agents understand what people want them to do, especially communicated in natural language,” Arthur Szlam, head of the Minecraft project at Facebook Research, told The Daily Beast.

Minecraft is both simple and complex. Its graphics are crude on purpose. The basic actions a player can take also are fairly simple. Walk. Dig. Craft. Hit. 

But the ways in which a player can interact with the game’s endlessly-generating world essentially are limitless. In Minecraft you can build almost anything you can imagine, from underground lairs to castles in the sky. You can grow crops, raise animals, tame fire, and channel water. 

That makes Minecraft a great proving ground for A.I. agents, Szlam said. “Because the players are so creative, the space of tasks a player might want a bot to accomplish in Minecraft is huge,” Szlam told The Daily Beast. “On the other hand, the game world is relatively simple in terms of physics and state representation, et cetera.”

The game’s simplicity makes it easier for Szlam and his team to translate an A.I.’s interactions with the player and the world into code. It’s “scriptable,” Szlam said, “and it simplifies perception.” 

It’s no accident that Minecraft, which Swedish developer Mojang launched in 2009, seems ready-made for A.I. experimentation. Microsoft bought Mojang and Minecraft in 2014. The software giant didn’t just want Minecraft for its commercial potential. 

“Microsoft Research has thrown a lot of support behind Minecraft as an A.I. research tool,” Matthew Guzdial, a Georgia Institute of Technology gaming researcher, told The Daily Beast. “Thus there are many tutorials and competitions to help structure research.”

Mojang didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment for this story. 

Guzdial said he expects Facebook’s Minecraft bots to learn fairly quickly to understand many basic commands from most players. “It could certainly [understand], ‘Go fight that zombie,’ or, ‘Build a tower 15 blocks high.’” 

But complex tasks might prove impossible with today’s code. “For example, I expect an A.I., even given years of training data, to struggle with a command like, ‘Make a statue of Iron Man and the Hulk fighting,’” Guzdial said.

Even if the Minecraft bot doesn’t quickly learn to understand complex commands and complete big tasks, as it listens and interacts with more and more players, it just might surprise people. “We hypothesize that these interactions can lead to emergent effects,” Szlam said. 

In other words, the bot just might learn to really understand what players want when they shout, vaguely and with less than perfect grammar, “Take out that dang baby zombie over there!”   

Anyone can download the bot here. For everyday players, the A.I. runs on the game’s own servers. Szlam said his team doesn’t gather any data from those players. “We can’t even detect someone running it.”

But the whole point of the project is to gather data that can help Szlam and his fellow researchers code smarter A.I. To that end, Facebook Research pays some players to run a version of the bot that resides on Facebook’s own servers. Szlam and his team periodically harvest the data from those players’ interactions with the bot and use it to improve the overall code for the A.I.

That bifurcated scheme could change, Szlam said. “Eventually, if we can make the bot good enough, we would like to open servers to the public. If and when we do that, we plan to give players control over whether or not their playing data is logged and used for this research, and we do not plan to pay players to interact with the bot.”

It’s hard to predict how smart Facebook’s Minecraft bot will become. And Szlam said it’s too soon to say what Facebook eventually might do with the underlying code. “We have just put together the scaffolding for this project,” he told The Daily Beast, “now we have to do the actual work.”

But it’s worth noting that a whole lot of entities—from corporations and universities to government agencies and even the military—are eager to develop intuitive A.I. for a wide range of applications. And consumers remain interested in smart computer assistants that understand the way people really talk.

Guzdial sees a long road ahead. The Minecraft bot might take us just a few steps farther. “I expect that no A.I. trained in Minecraft will make it into a product,” Guzdial told The Daily Beast. “Instead this project is about developing ways of training A.I. that can be tested in Minecraft, but will have to be retrained and deployed in other real-world domains.” 

There is one possible immediate benefit, Szlam pointed out. “Outside of our research goals, we very much hope that people will have fun playing with the bots.”

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