AMD’s Lisa Su Breaks Through the Silicon Ceiling

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Deep learning is now being used to translate between languages, predict how proteins fold, analyze medical scans, and play games as complex as Go, to name just a few applications of a technique that is now becoming pervasive. Success in those and other realms has brought this machine-learning technique from obscurity in the early 2000s to dominance today.

Although deep learning’s rise to fame is relatively recent, its origins are not. In 1958, back when mainframe computers filled rooms and ran on vacuum tubes, knowledge of the interconnections between neurons in the brain inspired
Frank Rosenblatt at Cornell to design the first artificial neural network, which he presciently described as a “pattern-recognizing device.” But Rosenblatt’s ambitions outpaced the capabilities of his era—and he knew it. Even his inaugural paper was forced to acknowledge the voracious appetite of neural networks for computational power, bemoaning that “as the number of connections in the network increases…the burden on a conventional digital computer soon becomes excessive.”

Fortunately for such artificial neural networks—later rechristened “deep learning” when they included extra layers of neurons—decades of
Moore’s Law and other improvements in computer hardware yielded a roughly 10-million-fold increase in the number of computations that a computer could do in a second. So when researchers returned to deep learning in the late 2000s, they wielded tools equal to the challenge.

These more-powerful computers made it possible to construct networks with vastly more connections and neurons and hence greater ability to model complex phenomena. Researchers used that ability to break record after record as they applied deep learning to new tasks.

While deep learning’s rise may have been meteoric, its future may be bumpy. Like Rosenblatt before them, today’s deep-learning researchers are nearing the frontier of what their tools can achieve. To understand why this will reshape machine learning, you must first understand why deep learning has been so successful and what it costs to keep it that way.

Deep learning is a modern incarnation of the long-running trend in artificial intelligence that has been moving from streamlined systems based on expert knowledge toward flexible statistical models. Early AI systems were rule based, applying logic and expert knowledge to derive results. Later systems incorporated learning to set their adjustable parameters, but these were usually few in number.

Today’s neural networks also learn parameter values, but those parameters are part of such flexible computer models that—if they are big enough—they become universal function approximators, meaning they can fit any type of data. This unlimited flexibility is the reason why deep learning can be applied to so many different domains.

The flexibility of neural networks comes from taking the many inputs to the model and having the network combine them in myriad ways. This means the outputs won’t be the result of applying simple formulas but instead immensely complicated ones.

For example, when the cutting-edge image-recognition system
Noisy Student converts the pixel values of an image into probabilities for what the object in that image is, it does so using a network with 480 million parameters. The training to ascertain the values of such a large number of parameters is even more remarkable because it was done with only 1.2 million labeled images—which may understandably confuse those of us who remember from high school algebra that we are supposed to have more equations than unknowns. Breaking that rule turns out to be the key.

Deep-learning models are overparameterized, which is to say they have more parameters than there are data points available for training. Classically, this would lead to overfitting, where the model not only learns general trends but also the random vagaries of the data it was trained on. Deep learning avoids this trap by initializing the parameters randomly and then iteratively adjusting sets of them to better fit the data using a method called stochastic gradient descent. Surprisingly, this procedure has been proven to ensure that the learned model generalizes well.

The success of flexible deep-learning models can be seen in machine translation. For decades, software has been used to translate text from one language to another. Early approaches to this problem used rules designed by grammar experts. But as more textual data became available in specific languages, statistical approaches—ones that go by such esoteric names as maximum entropy, hidden Markov models, and conditional random fields—could be applied.

Initially, the approaches that worked best for each language differed based on data availability and grammatical properties. For example, rule-based approaches to translating languages such as Urdu, Arabic, and Malay outperformed statistical ones—at first. Today, all these approaches have been outpaced by deep learning, which has proven itself superior almost everywhere it’s applied.

So the good news is that deep learning provides enormous flexibility. The bad news is that this flexibility comes at an enormous computational cost. This unfortunate reality has two parts.

A chart with an arrow going down to the right

A chart showing computations, billions of floating-point operations
Extrapolating the gains of recent years might suggest that by
2025 the error level in the best deep-learning systems designed
for recognizing objects in the ImageNet data set should be
reduced to just 5 percent [top]. But the computing resources and
energy required to train such a future system would be enormous,
leading to the emission of as much carbon dioxide as New York
City generates in one month [bottom].
SOURCE: N.C. THOMPSON, K. GREENEWALD, K. LEE, G.F. MANSO

The first part is true of all statistical models: To improve performance by a factor of
k, at least k2 more data points must be used to train the model. The second part of the computational cost comes explicitly from overparameterization. Once accounted for, this yields a total computational cost for improvement of at least k4. That little 4 in the exponent is very expensive: A 10-fold improvement, for example, would require at least a 10,000-fold increase in computation.

To make the flexibility-computation trade-off more vivid, consider a scenario where you are trying to predict whether a patient’s X-ray reveals cancer. Suppose further that the true answer can be found if you measure 100 details in the X-ray (often called variables or features). The challenge is that we don’t know ahead of time which variables are important, and there could be a very large pool of candidate variables to consider.

The expert-system approach to this problem would be to have people who are knowledgeable in radiology and oncology specify the variables they think are important, allowing the system to examine only those. The flexible-system approach is to test as many of the variables as possible and let the system figure out on its own which are important, requiring more data and incurring much higher computational costs in the process.

Models for which experts have established the relevant variables are able to learn quickly what values work best for those variables, doing so with limited amounts of computation—which is why they were so popular early on. But their ability to learn stalls if an expert hasn’t correctly specified all the variables that should be included in the model. In contrast, flexible models like deep learning are less efficient, taking vastly more computation to match the performance of expert models. But, with enough computation (and data), flexible models can outperform ones for which experts have attempted to specify the relevant variables.

Clearly, you can get improved performance from deep learning if you use more computing power to build bigger models and train them with more data. But how expensive will this computational burden become? Will costs become sufficiently high that they hinder progress?

To answer these questions in a concrete way,
we recently gathered data from more than 1,000 research papers on deep learning, spanning the areas of image classification, object detection, question answering, named-entity recognition, and machine translation. Here, we will only discuss image classification in detail, but the lessons apply broadly.

Over the years, reducing image-classification errors has come with an enormous expansion in computational…

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