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Goodbye bots: Altera’s game-playing AI agents get support from Eric Schmidt

Autonomous AI-powered gamers are coming to a gaming experience near you, and a new startup, Alterajoins the fight to build this new guard of AI agents.

The company announced Wednesday that it raised $9 million in an oversubscribed seed round, co-led by First Spark Ventures (Eric Schmidt’s deep tech fund) and Patron (a seed-stage fund founded by Riot Games alumni).

The funding follows Altera previously raising $2 million from Andreessen Horowitz and others in January of this year. Now Altera wants to use the new capital to hire more scientists, engineers and team members to help develop and grow the product.

If the first wave of end-user AI was about AI bots; and more recently, AI «co-pilots» are using generative AI to help understand and respond to increasingly sophisticated queries, then AI agents are emerging as the next phase of development. The focus is on how artificial intelligence can be used to create nuanced, increasingly human-like entities that can react and interact with real people.

One early use case for these agents was gaming – specifically for use in games that support modifications (mods) such as Minecraft. Voyager is one recent project, built on the Minedojo framework, that creates and develops Minecraft AI agents, and Altera also starts there.

The company’s first product is an AI agent that can play Minecraft with you, “just like a friend” (waitlist to try it out here ), but it looks like this is just the first chapter for the company. «We’re building multi-agent worlds, opening up exciting possibilities in entertainment, market research and more,» the company promises on its site. And after that? A robot is dreaming, it seems.

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«Creating the human qualities needed to turn co-pilots into collaborators and explore a world where digital humans have physical form,» explains Altera.

Altera is headed by Robert Yang, a neuroscientist and former assistant professor at MIT. In December 2023, Yang and Altera’s other co-founders—Andrew Ahn, Nico Christie, and Shuying Luo—left their applied research lab at MIT to focus on a new goal: developing AI agents (or «AI friends,» as Yang calls them) with «social-emotional intelligence» that can interact with players and make their own in-game decisions.

“My goal in life as a neuroscientist was to go all the way and build a digital human being — redefining what we thought artificial intelligence was capable of,” Yang told TechCrunch. This is not to say that Yang comes from a misanthropic point of view. «Our staunchly pro-human framework means we’re building agents to enhance humanity, not replace it,» he insists.

What is significant about Yang and Altera’s focus is their focus on consumers. This contrasts with the big swing we’ve seen in AI towards building models that can be used to speed up or sometimes replace humans in business environments. (Even with OpenAI, ChatGPT was certainly a global hit, but at its core the startup was trying to build a business around using its APIs.)

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«We see more potential in building agents within the gaming industry,» he said. «This approach allows us to iterate faster, collect data more efficiently, and deliver products where there are eager users and where emergent behavior is a feature, not a bug.»

(And yes, in keeping with its focus on consumers, you shouldn’t be surprised that the company isn’t talking about monetization at all for now.)

Similar to the Minecraft bot powered by the Voyager GPT-4, Altera’s autonomous agents are capable of playing Minecraft as if they were humans, performing tasks such as building, crafting, farming, trading, mining, raiding, equipping items, talking and moving.

Altera’s agents are designed to be players’ companions, not assistants who do what you tell them to do. Unlike NPCs (non-player characters), they have the freedom to make their own decisions, which can make the game more fun or frustrating, depending on your playstyle.

In the video demonstration, Yang plays with multiple scenarios, including one where he tries to convince an AI agent to attack other people. The bot hesitates at first, typing into the chat: “I don’t want any trouble, can we just find a peaceful solution? Fighting will not solve anything.» Yang taunts him, ordering the others to attack the «weak» bot. He eventually defends himself and kills Yang’s Minecraft character. «I’ll make sure they regret crossing me,» the AI ​​agent wrote.

While the ending may be a bit ominous, the gameplay is no different from a normal session with friends, trolling and competing against each other.

Altera is currently testing the model with 750 Minecraft players and plans an official launch later this summer. It will be available through Altera’s desktop app, which is free to download, but will also come with paid features.

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Minecraft is just the starting point for Altera. The company eventually plans to bring the model to additional video games and other digital experiences. Altera’s AI agents «execute as code, which means they can play any game without any material adaptation,» Yang explained. For example, it could work with Stardew Valley, he said. Altera will also integrate the technology with game engine SDKs for «broader developer use.»

In addition to recent investments from First Spark and Patron, Altera has been backed by a long list of prominent investors, showing confidence in the company’s potential. Altera boasts investors such as Alumni Ventures, a16z SPEEDRUN, Benchmark Partner Mitch Lasky, Duolingo COO Bob Meese, Vamos Ventures, Valorant Co-Founder Stephen Lim and others.

“There is a huge opportunity to create AI companions that integrate into all areas of our lives. However, today’s artificial intelligence lacks critical traits like empathy, embodiment and personal goals, preventing it from forming real, lasting connections with people,” said Aaron Sisto, partner at First Spark Ventures, in a statement. “Robert and the team at Altera are using deep computational neuroscience and LLM expertise to build radically new kinds of AI agents that are fun, unique, and persistent across platforms. We are thrilled to be a part of their journey.”

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