'Minecraft' is being used to teach AI to how to do urban planning

A competition using the game is helping improve artificial intelligence's ability to plan cities and could be applied to the real world one day.

Minecraft, the uber-popular sandbox building game launched nearly a decade ago, is being used for much more than playtime. The software has found itself home to everything from virtual music festivals to virtual libraries in the recent past.

Now designers are using it as a playground for artificial intelligence (AI). The Generative Design in Minecraft competition (GDMC) asks users to create an AI architect and then have it build a realistic town or village in the virtual landscape. The GDMC is run by a group of Ph.D. students and professors at NYU, and this month’s competition marks its third iteration.

The rules are simple: write an AI program capable of producing a “functional, aesthetic and believable” settlement on an unknown Minecraft map. The submitted algorithm is then run on three maps — judging is completed based on the output.

This is all in good fun for now. But it’s also a look at just how powerful Minecraft can be as a planning and testing ground for real-world applications.

Pushing the limits — The GDMC is incredibly open-ended, as far as competitions go. That’s because it’s meant to be a hotbed for creative AI ideas.

Judging is completed on four levels: aesthetic appeal, usability of the layout, adaptation to specific locale, and the narrative evoked by the design. The panel of eight judges includes everyone from archaeologists to game designers to architects.

Keeping everything open-ended — including the maps used for judging — means the artificial intelligence needs to be able to plan for many different circumstances.

Real-world implications — The structures in Minecraft aren’t “real,” per se, but the algorithms being used to create them certainly are. The competition isn’t necessarily built with the real world in mind, but that doesn’t mean its results won’t carry over to reality.

Urban planning is inherently tricky because of its scale. You can’t just build a city with ambitious, future-forward designs — it’s much too costly, for one thing, and knowing whether or not the designs are actually livable can take a very long time.

Minecraft takes away that risk by putting designs in simulation mode. AI isn’t going to be designing actual, livable cities any time soon, but it’s already being used toward making them better. AI planning simulations are helping to analyze fault points in existing city structures. Some day it could be used to better our living situations and make cities more livable than ever before.

As long as we still have a planet to build them on, that is. Maybe we’ll all just stay inside and exist in a Minecraft simulation instead.