At its core, Minecraft is a game. It's designed to be fun, immersive, and challenging. But as we've seen in recent years, it can become a lot more than just a game, thanks in part to its extreme modularity. Especially with the introduction of the Redstone block, we've seen people create everything from calculators to conveyor belts to printers. With Minecraft, the sky really is the limit.
So too is the potential of the game itself, it seems. Despite its modest graphics and extremely blocky nature, Microsoft sees great things coming from Minecraft. While some might just want to chop down a tree in the game engine itself, Microsoft sees artificial intelligence researchers making use of the game to test out their algorithms in a completely safe environment. To make this possible, the company has rolled out "Project Malmo."
In private preview for a couple of months, Project Malmo is Microsoft's solution to let researchers inject their work into Minecraft's server-side client, allowing the front-facing game to interact with their implementation.
Again, the sky's the limit here and because of Minecraft's extreme flexibility, researchers could test things inside of the game such as chat bots - responding and taking action based on what the user requests. A specific example given by Microsoft is crafting: create bots to craft what you need to, but in a smart way. This is artificial "intelligence", after all. In another example, researchers could have their players automatically explore with the goal of finding prime real estate to set up shop.
If Project Malmo sounds like something you'd be interested in, you'd be happy to know that the source code for it is completely free, and is being hosted on GitHub. Just be warned: in case it isn't obvious, you'll need some comprehensive programming knowledge to make use of Project Malmo. For those who can, Minecraft might just be a boon for research, development and test environments.