Facebook Is Building a Minecraft AI Because Games May Be Great Training Tools


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It turns out that video games may be an excellent method of teaching skills to artificial intelligence assistants. That’s the theory of a group of researchers working for Facebook, who have focused on Minecraft as a potential teaching tool for building generalist AI — a so-called ‘virtual assistant.’ The research team isn’t trying to build an artificial intelligence that’s super-good at classifying images or other content — it wants to build a generalist AI that can perform a much larger number of tasks reasonably well.

This is, to-date, an under-studied area of research. The authors’ write:

There has been measured progress in this setting as well, with the mainstreaming of virtual personal assistants. These are able to accomplish thousands of tasks communicated via natural language, using multi-turn dialogue for clarifications or further specification. The assistants are able to interact with other applications to get data or perform actions.

Nevertheless, many difficult problems remain open. Automatic natural language understanding (NLU) is still rigid and limited to constrained scenarios. Methods for using dialogue or other natural language for rich supervision remain primitive. In addition, because they need to be able to reliably and predictably solve many simple tasks, their multi-modal inputs, and the constraints of their maintenance and deployment, assistants are modular systems, as opposed to monolithic ML models. Modular ML systems that can improve themselves from data while keeping well-defined interfaces are still not well studied.

According to the team, they picked Minecraft because it offered a regular distribution of tasks with “hand-holds for NLU research,” as well as enjoyable opportunities for human-AI interaction, with plenty of opportunities for human-in-the-loop research. Minecraft, for those of you who haven’t played or heard of it, is a block-based crafting and exploration game in which players explore a 3D voxel grid universe populated with various types of materials, neutral characters, and enemies. The team’s goal is to build an AI virtual assistant that can be given instructions in natural language by a Minecraft player, and that can reliably complete some of the primary tasks that player might engage in, including gathering materials, building structures, fighting mobs, and crafting items.

The authors of the paper target three specific achievements: Create synergy between machine-learning and non-machine-learning components, allowing them to work together; create a “grounded” natural language simulation that allows the AI to understand what players want it to do, and can communicate its success or failure back to the end-user; and create an AI that shouldn’t just be capable of doing what the player wants it to do, but that also its performance should improve based on observation of the human player.

They write:

We intend that the player will be able to specify tasks through dialogue (rather than by just issuing commands), so that the agent can ask for missing information, or the player can interrupt the agent’s actions to clarify. In addition, we hope dialogue to be useful for providing rich supervision. The player might label attributes about the environment, for example “that house is too big”, relations between objects in the environment (or other concepts the bot understands), for example “the window is in the middle of the wall”, or rules about such relations or attributes. We expect the player to be able to question the agent’s “mental state” to give appropriate feedback, and we expect the bot to ask for confirmation and use active learning strategies.

The machine learning code being used for the Facebook-Minecraft bot is available on GitHub. Better AI tools could be useful in many games, though they could also raise serious questions about what constitutes cheating in multiplayer.

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Minecraft Earth closed beta goes live on Android in five cities – gpgmail


When the beta for Minecraft Earth (think the building concepts of Minecraft mashed up with the real world wandering/augmented reality/collecting concepts of Pokémon GO) first went live back in July, it did so with a catch or two: it only worked on iOS, and only players in Seattle or London were actually able to play.

The beta pool is expanding dramatically this morning, with players on Android finally being invited to jump in. Meanwhile, the region locks have expanded over the past few weeks to include Tokyo, Stockholm, and Mexico City along with Seattle and London.

Curiously, those new Android users will immediately get access to a fledgling feature that iOS players haven’t: the in-game currency, rubies. Rubies can be earned or bought, and allow players to buy more build plates upon which they can piece together their blocky creations. In a blog post on the beta expansion, the company promises that any rubies acquired during the beta will follow the player into the eventual public release, and that iOS support for rubies is coming “very soon.”

Alas, you can’t just hop in the Google Play store, hit download, and get to building. It’s still a closed beta, so you’ll have to sign up and be invited in before you’ll be able to start.

We went hands-on with an early build of Minecraft Earth right after it was announced — check out our early impressions here.


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Minecraft Will Receive Nvidia-Exclusive RTX Update for Raytracing Support


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Last week, Mojang announced that the Minecraft Super Duper Graphics Pack (SDGP) that Microsoft had promised back in 2017 was canceled, permanently. No additional information was offered on why the update was canceled, or what the team had been working on for the past two years before canceling it. As of today, Nvidia has announced that it will be developing an exclusive ray tracing pack for Minecraft for Nvidia GPU owners.

Mojang’s announcement states: “It’ll be playable on Windows 10 with devices that are capable of DirectX R, such as with an NVIDIA GeForce RTX GPU (and we plan to expand it to future platforms that support DirectX R raytracing).”

Presumably, DirectX R is a reference to DXR, which is the official name for DirectX ray tracing. RTX is Nvidia’s brand-name for its implementation of the Microsoft DXR standard. We imagine AMD will introduce its own branding or simply use the DXR moniker when it launches support. Speaking of AMD, we don’t know if the “future platforms” is a reference to systems like the PS5 and Xbox Next or whether it’s a reference to Big Navi, which is expected to debut next year.

“Ray tracing sits at the center of what we think is next for Minecraft,” said Saxs Persson, head creative director for Minecraft at Microsoft. “GeForce RTX gives the Minecraft world a brand-new feel to it. In normal Minecraft, a block of gold just appears yellow, but with ray tracing turned on, you really get to see the specular highlight, you get to see the reflection, you can even see a mob reflected in it.”

Minecraft-RTX-versus-Off

The screenshot above shows the impact of having RTX enabled versus disabled, with the divider halfway down the screen. RTX-enabled is on the right.

There’s likely a relationship between the cancellation of the SDGP and Nvidia’s announcement that it will provide a path tracing solution for Minecraft, but there’s no indication of what the exact relationship was. The SDGP was in development for a long time and Mojang was always very tight-lipped about its progress. Developer communication on this point, when it occurred, amounted to “nothing to report, full engine updates are very complicated and you’ll see it when it’s closer to done than it is now.”

It’s possible that Nvidia saw the work being done by third-party modders to integrate ray tracing into Minecraft, was inspired by it, and reached out to Mojang about the possibility directly. But even if Mojang liked the idea, it’s highly unlikely that the company would cancel two years worth of work on its own overhaul. But all of this is rather confusing because Mojang announced the launch of its own new rendering pipeline as part of its overall RTX graphics cardSEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce support. The Bedrock version of Minecraft will be updated with a new graphics rendering pipeline, codenamed Render Dragon.

In other words: When Microsoft announced the Super Duper Graphics Pack, it announced that the SDGP would be introduced alongside a new graphics engine implemented in the Bedrock version of the game. Earlier this year, we covered an extensive path tracing Minecraft mod that turned the game into a vision of beauty. Now, Nvidia has cut a deal with Mojang to build an RTX-powered version of the game and Mojang has killed the SDGP, but will still introduce the updated rendering engine the SDGP was expected to use.

If we had to guess, we’d guess that Mojang’s comments about DXR compatibility refer to other consoles, or at least the Xbox Next. Nvidia isn’t going to do any work to provide ray tracing support on a non-Nvidia GPU, but Microsoft is unlikely to invest heavily in a ray-tracing update for Minecraft that can’t run on its own Xbox Next. Whatever gets hammered out between them, it wouldn’t surprise us if AMD GPU customers who don’t game on consoles are out of luck with this one. Modders have already created a path-traced version of Minecraft that looks extraordinary, so at least third-party options will continue to be available.

The RTX-powered version of Minecraft should arrive sometime in 2020. Hopefully, Nvidia will pay better attention to performance optimization than it did in Quake II — that particular game runs quite slowly, despite the age of the underlying engine. Minecraft’s greatest strength is its ability to play on anything, and as great as it is to see features like path tracing, we hope Nvidia can offer them without destroying performance. Features like 4K support, which was a major capability of the SDGP, have not been mentioned.

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Minecraft’s Long-Promised Super-Duper 4K Graphics Pack Is Canceled


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A little over two years ago, Minecraft developer Mojang announced that Minecraft would be receiving an awesome, amazing, incredible graphics update. The new Super Duper Graphics Pack (we didn’t name it) was supposed to introduce a swath of new graphics features, including 4K textures, rippling water, cleaner lines, a different lighting engine, dynamic shadows, edge highlighting, and directional lighting. The video showing off the improvements was a hit back at E3 2017, and questions about when the update would be released have popped up on the Minecraft subreddit from time to time ever since.

Today, Mojang declared the Super Duper Graphics Pack update is canceled, permanently. According to the company, “Super Duper was an ambitious initiative that brought a new look to Minecraft but, unfortunately, the pack proved too technically demanding to implement as planned.”

Minecraft Super Duper Graphics Pack. Image by Microsoft.

The only explanation the company has provided for why it won’t be bringing the update is that “we aren’t happy with how the pack performed across devices. For this reason, we’re stopping development on the pack, and looking into other ways for you to experience Minecraft with a new look.”

This is a pretty thin explanation. First of all, we would have expected this kind of work — specifically, the work of deciding which devices would be targets for Minecraft’s SDGP — would have been typified before that project had begun. Minecraft runs on a huge number of devices, but you don’t typically develop an expansion like this without targets in mind, because (presumably) you’ll be testing the updates on a variety of systems as you work through them. Discovering after two years that you can’t justify the update because some products can’t run it, if true, speaks to some rather odd development priorities. Why wouldn’t you finish the update or upgrade for the systems that can?

The SDGP required a complete rewrite of the Minecraft graphics engine. Such efforts are not trivial and it isn’t crazy for a total overhaul to take two years. But at the same time, what sense does it make to scrap the rewrite after two full years in development?

Not much makes sense about this. The Super Duper Graphics Pack wasn’t supposed to break Minecraft’s ability to run on older hardware; it was supposed to provide better image quality for machines capable of running it. The upcoming launch of a new console generation and the inevitable upgrade treadmill for mobile devices should have provided a more robust hardware platform for the game relative to 2017. Mojang and Microsoft jointly declared that Minecraft has sold 176 million copies as of May 2019. The original PC version has sold 30 million copies. Microsoft continues to invest in and augment Minecraft with spinoffs like the AR-focused Minecraft Earth. If any game could possibly justify the investment of a new graphics engine a decade after launch, it’d be a title like Minecraft.

The most logical implication here is that Mojang couldn’t find a way to build an engine that both delivered the capabilities they wanted at the top-end and still offered an acceptable level of performance on lower-end hardware. There might have also been fears about the impact of splitting the player base across multiple versions of the game and maintaining updates for both engines going forward. Killing off the engine update after more than two years is a fairly extreme step. Hopefully, there’ll still be a way for some of these optimizations and enhancements to be integrated into the base version. Otherwise, Mojang’s graphics team has just spent two years of work on a major engine rewrite, only to see their efforts basically flushed down the drain.

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