How AI researchers are using “Minecraft” to simulate biology

When a group of AI researchers started using Minecraft to simulate cell growth, even they were surprised at the sophistication of the structures – like a jungle temple with a fully functioning arrow trap – they were able to create.

Their goal was to build complexes Minecraft structures by having each block learn to communicate with those around it, mimicking the way the human body grows from a single cell in a process called morphogenesis. This model worked even better than they expected, with a block becoming exactly the type of objects it was trained to create. In addition to the Jungle Temple, the system spawned pristine castles, elegant apartments, and even a caterpillar that regenerates after being cut in half.

Sebastian Risi, an artificial intelligence researcher at IT University Copenhagen, says this work could be a basis for more ambitious projects to come, including a version of Minecraft which simulates evolution. He conducted the research with his ITU Copenhagen colleagues Shyam Sudhakaran, Djordje Grbic, Siyan Li and Elias Najarro; Adam Katona of York University; and Claire Glanois from Shanghai Jiao Tong University.)

“We now have the basic components,” says Risi. “It’s just about figuring out how to connect them all.”

From one cell to another

the Minecraft The concept behind the project, called cellular automation, has been around since the 1940s. It’s the idea that cells in a system can live, die or reproduce according to a set of rules. by John Conway The game of lifewhich dates from 1970, is probably the best known example.

But in those early systems, researchers had to program the rules themselves, a process that eventually became impractical as the systems became more complex.

This new Minecraft the simulation works differently. Instead of coding the rules by hand, the researchers used neural networks to train each cell on what a set of finished structures should look like. Each cell determines what type of Minecraft block to become by looking at the cells around it, then relays this information to its neighboring cells so that they in turn can determine what they will become next.

“We only told him what to grow, but we didn’t tell him exactly how to grow it,” Risi says.

This type of intercellular communication roughly approximates how human cells work together toward a common goal, which Risi says is part of what makes the research exciting. The exact language that our cells communicate is still a bit mysterious; Risi hopes that by visualizing the messages each cell sends, which researchers hope to do in the future, they can help biologists better understand how the body works.

“It’s hard to study these things in nature because it’s hard to extract the exact messages the cells are transmitting,” he says. “We think you might get some insight into the nature of what cells need to send out to self-assemble.”

Biological building blocks

Even if this project does not reveal the secrets of the human body, it could still lead to other interesting applications.

On the one hand, it could create new possibilities for Minecraft like a game. You could imagine a game world with structures that self-assemble before your eyes, or self-heal after being destroyed. Perhaps players could also get involved in the creation process by starting to build a structure and then letting cellular automation take over.

“Instead of having a fixed world, as you explore the game, the world could grow around you or grow with you, perhaps also involving you in these kinds of cellular automata,” explains Risi.

“Minecraft” could simulate evolution, with structures that not only regrow, but adapt to become more resilient.

Going further, Risi believes that Minecraft could simulate evolution, with structures that not only regrow, but adapt to become more resilient. Because self-replication is a building block of evolution, Risi believes the groundwork is already in place.

“We saw with this caterpillar, you cut it in half and get another caterpillar,” he says. “We now need to figure out how to build this evolutionary loop, so that from this caterpillar, other organisms can evolve.”

Researchers’ paper also throws in crazier ideas, like how further research into Minecraft could help us figure out how to create better artificial organs or real-world buildings that repair themselves. Risi agrees that sounds like science fiction, but the researchers really want to translate their lessons from Microsoft’s virtual world into the real world.

“It’s cool to do stuff in Minecraft“, he says, “but it goes beyond Minecraftin that we ultimately want to use it as a tool for developmental biology.

James G. Williams