Minecraft is one of the most popular games on Earth, allowing users to craft entire worlds out of blocks.
An annual competition asks competitors to use AI to build functional towns and cities in Minecraft. It begs the question: Might the game have urban planning applications?
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Minecraft has long been a canvas for wild invention. Fans have used the hit block-building game to create replicas of everything from downtown Chicago and King’s Landing to working CPUs. In the decade since its first release, anything that can be built has been.
Since 2018, Minecraft has also been the setting for a creative challenge that stretches the abilities of machines. The annual Generative Design in Minecraft (GDMC) competition asks participants to build artificial intelligence that can generate realistic towns or villages in previously unseen locations. The contest is just for fun, for now, but the techniques explored by the various AI competitors are precursors of ones that real-world city planners could use.
The open-endedness of the challenge means that AIs need to master multiple objectives. To win, they must impress eight human judges from a range of backgrounds, including architects, archaeologists, and game designers.
These judges score the AI city planners in four areas: how well they adapt their designs to specific locations; how well the layouts work, according to criteria such as whether there are bridges and roads between different areas; how appealing they are aesthetically; and how much the designs evoke a narrative—are there details that tell a story about how a town came to be, such as a ruin or a pit from which building materials might have been mined? “Making a Minecraft village for an unseen map is something a 10-year-old human could do,” says Salge. “But it is really difficult for an AI.”
The competition has come a long way in three years. The first time around, settlements often looked machine-made, with buildings arranged in repetitive rows or random clusters. This year’s winners, announced on Thursday, featured settlements with believable layouts adapted to each location. Roads hug hillsides, bridges span rivers, and houses even contain furniture.