Most people would have a hard time convincing their bosses that playing Minecraft counts as working. MIT Technology Review reported yesterday that Facebook's latest virtual assistant will be able to do just that, however, because it was created to help Minecraft players with a variety of tasks. Why? Because the company wants to develop artificial intelligence that can learn how to do multiple things, rather than just one thing really well.
Most AI is currently restricted to a specific task. Companies develop systems capable of recognizing the subject of a photograph, for example, or wiping the floor with human players in Quake III. There's no denying the effectiveness of these AI once they're properly trained--which is why AI has become increasingly common in the tech industry--but those systems are specialized to the point that they're all but useless when given a different task.
Tech companies effectively created hammers that can swing themselves. Is that a neat trick? Sure. But there's a difference between carrying out a single task, like these AI do, and being truly intelligent. Even a self-swinging hammer is just a tool; a carpenter who knows how to use multiple tools is intelligent. (These are just generalizations, of course, and we're sure we aren't the only ones who've met people dumber than a door nail.)
Games offer researchers ways to create AI that isn't limited to a single task but also isn't expected to learn in an environment as chaotic as the real world. Minecraft offers players a lot of freedom, but even that freedom is found within a system that relies on clearly defined rules. AI can learn how these systems operate much easier than they'd be able to internalize the far more complex rules we humans deal with outside the physical realm.
MIT Technology review said Facebook imagined the Minecraft assistant taking instructions like "build a tower 15 blocks tall and then put a giant smiley on top" and learning how to achieve those goals. That's more complex than it seems: the AI has to define all of those terms, learn how to build the structure and figure out how to decorate it with a smiley face. It seems easy to us because we know what "tower" and "tall" and "smiley face" mean.
Facebook reportedly hopes the assistant would be able to learn from each of these interactions so it could eventually handle more and more tasks. Similar efforts could lead to dramatic improvements in AI that have nothing to do with Minecraft--imagine a voice assistant that could actually follow multi-step instructions rather than going back-and-forth with a string of single-step tasks. That would be far more convenient than current AI allows.
More information about Facebook's efforts can be found in the paper "Why Build an Assistant in Minecraft?" A beta version of the assistant--along with the datasets on which it relies--can be downloaded from GitHub. We'd explain where to find Minecraft, but with more than 176 million copies of the game sold as of this May, we suspect most people who'd be interested in an AI like the one described here already have the game installed.