New machine-learning tool can predicts how fast computer chips will execute code


MIT researchers have invented a machine-learning tool that predicts how fast computer chips will execute code from various applications.

To get code to run as fast as possible, developers and compilers – programs that translate programming language into machine-readable code – typically use performance models that run the code through a simulation of given chip architectures.

Compilers use that information to automatically optimize code, and developers use it to tackle performance bottlenecks on the microprocessors that will run it.

But performance models for machine code are handwritten by a relatively small group of experts and are not properly validated.

As a consequence, the simulated performance measurements often deviate from real-life results.

In series of conference papers, the researchers describe a novel machine-learning pipeline that automates this process, making it easier, faster, and more accurate. In a paper presented at the International Conference on Machine Learning in June, the researchers presented Ithemal, a neural-network model that trains on labeled data in the form of “basic blocks” – fundamental snippets of computing instructions – to automatically predict how long it takes a given chip to execute previously unseen basic blocks. Results suggest Ithemal performs far more accurately than traditional hand-tuned models.

Then, at the November IEEE International Symposium on Workload Characterization, the researchers presented a benchmark suite of basic blocks from a variety of domains, including machine learning, compilers, cryptography, and graphics that can be used to validate performance models.

They pooled more than 300,000 of the profiled blocks into an open-source dataset called BHive.

During their evaluations, Ithemal predicted how fast Intel chips would run code even better than a performance model built by Intel itself.

Ultimately, developers and compilers can use the tool to generate code that runs faster and more efficiently on an ever-growing number of diverse and “black box” chip designs.

“Modern computer processors are opaque, horrendously complicated, and difficult to understand. It is also incredibly challenging to write computer code that executes as fast as possible for these processors,” says co-author Michael Carbin, an assistant professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) and a researcher in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL).

“This tool is a big step forward toward fully modeling the performance of these chips for improved efficiency.”

Most recently, in a paper presented at the NeurIPS conference in December, the team proposed a new technique to automatically generate compiler optimizations. Specifically, they automatically generate an algorithm, called Vemal, that converts certain code into vectors, which can be used for parallel computing.

Vemal outperforms hand-crafted vectorization algorithms used in the LLVM compiler – a popular compiler used in the industry.

Learning from data

Designing performance models by hand can be “a black art,” Carbin says. Intel provides extensive documentation of more than 3,000 pages describing its chips’ architectures. But there currently exists only a small group of experts who will build performance models that simulate the execution of code on those architectures.

“Intel’s documents are neither error-free nor complete, and Intel will omit certain things, because it’s proprietary,” Mendis says.

“However, when you use data, you don’t need to know the documentation. If there’s something hidden you can learn it directly from the data.”

To do so, the researchers clocked the average number of cycles a given microprocessor takes to compute basic block instructions – basically, the sequence of boot-up, execute, and shut down – without human intervention. Automating the process enables rapid profiling of hundreds of thousands or millions of blocks.

Domain-specific architectures

In training, the Ithemal model analyzes millions of automatically profiled basic blocks to learn exactly how different chip architectures will execute computation. Importantly, Ithemal takes raw text as input and does not require manually adding features to the input data.

In testing, Ithemal can be fed previously unseen basic blocks and a given chip, and will generate a single number indicating how fast the chip will execute that code.

The researchers found Ithemal cut error rates in accuracy – meaning the difference between the predicted speed versus real-world speed – by 50 percent over traditional hand-crafted models.

Further, in their next paper, they showed that Ithemal’s error rate was 10 percent, while the Intel performance-prediction model’s error rate was 20 percent on a variety of basic blocks across multiple different domains.

The tool now makes it easier to quickly learn performance speeds for any new chip architectures, Mendis says. For instance, domain-specific architectures, such as Google’s new Tensor Processing Unit used specifically for neural networks, are now being built but aren’t widely understood.

“If you want to train a model on some new architecture, you just collect more data from that architecture, run it through our profiler, use that information to train Ithemal, and now you have a model that predicts performance,” Mendis says.

Next, the researchers are studying methods to make models interpretable. Much of machine learning is a black box, so it’s not really clear why a particular model made its predictions.

“Our model is saying it takes a processor, say, 10 cycles to execute a basic block. Now, we’re trying to figure out why,” Carbin says.

“That’s a fine level of granularity that would be amazing for these types of tools.”

They also hope to use Ithemal to enhance the performance of Vemal even further and achieve better performance automatically.

Machine learning

Machine learning techniques are based on algorithms – sets of mathematical procedures which describe the relationships between variables. This paper will explain the process of developing (known as training) and validating an algorithm to predict the malignancy of a sample of breast tissue based on its characteristics.

Though algorithms work in different ways depending on their type there are notable commonalities in the way in which they are developed. Though the complexities of ML algorithms may appear esoteric, they often bear more than a subtle resemblance to conventional statistical analyses.

Given the commonalities shared between statistical and ML techniques, the boundary between the two may seem fuzzy or ill-defined. One way to delineate these bodies of approaches is to consider their primary goals.

The goal of statistical methods is inference; to reach conclusions about populations or derive scientific insights from data which are collected from a representative sample of that population.

Though many statistical techniques, such as linear and logistic regression, are capable of creating predictions about new data, the motivator of their use as a statistical methodology is to make inferences about relationships between variables.

For example, if we were to create a model which described the relationship between clinical variables and mortality following organ transplant surgery for example, we would need to have insight into the factors which distinguish low mortality risk from high if we were to develop interventions to improve outcomes and reduce mortality in the future. In statistical inference, therefore, the goal is to understand the relationships between variables.

Conversely, in the field of ML, the primary concern is an accurate prediction; the ‘what’ rather than the ‘how’. For example, in image recognition, the relationship between the individual features (pixels) and the outcome is of little relevance if the prediction is accurate. This is a critical facet of ML techniques as the relationship between many inputs, such as pixels in image or video and geo-location, are complex and usually non-linear.

It is exceptionally difficult to describe in a coherent way the relationships between predictors and outcomes both when the relationships are non-linear and when there are a large number of predictors, each of which make a small individual contribution to the model.

Fortunately for the medical field, many relationships of interest are reasonably straightforward, such as those between body mass index and diabetes risk or tobacco use a lung cancer. Because of this, their interaction can often be reasonably well explained using relatively simple models. In many popular applications of ML, such a optimizing navigation, translating documents, and identifying objects in videos, understanding the relationship between features and outcomes is of less importance.

This allows the use of complex non-linear algorithms. Given this key difference, it might be useful for researchers to consider that algorithms exist on a continuum between those algorithms which are easily interpretable (i.e., Auditable Algorithms) and those which are not (i.e., Black Boxes), presented visually in Fig. 1.

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Fig. 1
The complexity/interpretability trade-off in machine learning tools

Interesting questions remain as to when a conventionally statistical technique becomes a ML technique. In this work, we will introduce some that computational enhancements to traditional statistical techniques, such as elastic net regression, make these algorithms performed well with big data. However, a fuller discussion of the similarities and differences between ML and conventional statistics is beyond the purview of the current paper. Interested readers are directed to materials which develop the ideas discussed here [11].

It should also be acknowledged that whilst the ’Black Box’ concept does generally apply to models which utilize non-linear transformations, such as the neural networks, work is being carried out to facilitate feature identification in complex algorithms [12].

The majority of ML methods can be categorised into two types learning techniques: those which are supervised and those which are unsupervised. Both are introduced in the following sections.

Supervised learning

Supervised ML refers to techniques in which a model is trained on a range of inputs (or features) which are associated with a known outcome. In medicine, this might represent training a model to relate a person’s characteristics (e.g., height, weight, smoking status) to a certain outcome (onset of diabetes within five years, for example). Once the algorithm is successfully trained, it will be capable of making outcome predictions when applied to new data. Predictions which are made by models trained using supervised learning can be either discrete (e.g., positive or negative, benign or malignant) or continuous (e.g., a score from 0 to 100).

A model which produces discrete categories (sometimes referred to as classes) is referred to as a classification algorithm. Examples of classification algorithms include those which, predict if a tumour is benign or malignant, or to establish whether comments written by a patient convey a positive or negative sentiment [2613]. In practice, classification algorithms return the probability of a class (between 0 for impossible and 1 for definite). Typically, we would transform any probability greater than.50 into a class of 1, but this threshold may be altered to improve algorithm performance as required. This paper provides an example of a classification algorithm in which a diagnosis is predicted.

A model which returns a prediction of a continuous value is known as a regression algorithm. The use of the term regression in ML varies from its use in statistics, where regression is often used to refer to both binary outcomes (i.e., logistic regression) and continuous outcomes (i.e., linear regression). In ML, an algorithm which is referred to as a regression algorithm might be used to predict an individual’s life expectancy or tolerable dose of chemotherapy.

Supervised ML algorithms are typically developed using a dataset which contains a number of variables and a relevant outcome. For some tasks, such as image recognition or language processing, the variables (which would be pixels or words) must be processed by a feature selector. A feature selector picks identifiable characteristics from the dataset which then can be represented in a numerical matrix and understood by the algorithm.

In the examples above, a feature may be the colour of a pixel in an image or the number of times that a word appears in a given text. Using the same examples, outcomes may be whether an image shows a malignant or benign tumour or whether transcribed interview responses indicate predisposition to a mental health condition.

Once a dataset has been organised into features and outcomes, a ML algorithm may be applied to it. The algorithm is iteratively improved to reduce the error of prediction using an optimization technique.

Note that, when training ML algorithms, it is possible to over-fit the algorithm to the nuances of a specific dataset, resulting in a prediction model that does not generalise well to new data. The risk of over-fitting can be mitigated using various techniques.

Perhaps the most straight-forward approach, which will be employed in this work, is to split our dataset into two segments; a training segment and a testing segment to ensure that the trained model can generalize to predictions beyond the training sample. Each segment contains a randomly-selected proportion of the features and their related outcomes.

This allows the algorithm to associate certain features, or characteristics, with a specific outcome, and is known as training the algorithm. Once training is completed, the algorithm is applied to the features in the testing dataset without their associated outcomes.

The predictions made by the algorithm are then compared to the known outcomes of the testing dataset to establish model performance. This is a necessary step to increase the likelihood that the algorithm will generalise well to new data. This process is illustrated graphically in Fig. 2.

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Fig. 2
Overview of supervised learning. a Training b Validation c Application of algorithm to new data

Unsupervised Machine Learning

In contrast with supervised learning, unsupervised learning does not involve a predefined outcome. In unsupervised learning, patterns are sought by algorithms without any input from the user. Unsupervised techniques are thus exploratory and used to find undefined patterns or clusters which occur within datasets.

These techniques are often referred to as dimension reduction techniques and include processes such as principal component analysis, latent Dirichlet analysis and t-Distributed Stochastic Neighbour Embedding (t-SNE) [1416]. Unsupervised learning techniques are not discussed at length in this work, which focusses primarily on supervised ML. However, unsupervised methods are sometimes employed in conjunction with the methods used in this paper to reduce the number of features in an analysis, and are thereby worth mention. By compressing the information in a dataset into fewer features, or dimensions, issues including multiple-collinearity or high computational cost may be avoided.

A visual illustration of an unsupervised dimension reduction technique is given in Fig. 3.

In this figure, the raw data (represented by various shapes in the left panel) are presented to the algorithm which then groups the data into clusters of similar data points (represented in the right panel). Note that data which do not have sufficient commonality to the clustered data are typically excluded, thereby reducing the number of features within of the dataset.

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Fig. 3
A visual illustration of an unsupervised dimension reduction technique

In a similar way to the supervised learning algorithms described earlier, also share many similarities to statistical techniques which will be familiar to medical researchers. Unsupervised learning techniques make use of similar algorithms used for clustering and dimension reduction in traditional statistics. Those familiar with Principal Component Analysis and factor analysis will already be familiar with many of the techniques used in unsupervised learning.

What this paper will achieve

This paper provides a pragmatic example using supervised ML techniques to derive classifications from a dataset containing multiple inputs. The first algorithm we introduce, the regularized logistic regression, is very closely related to multivariate logistic regression. It is distinguished primarily by the use of a regularization function which both reduces the number of features in the model and attenuates the magnitude of their coefficients. Regularization is, therefore, suitable for datasets which contain many variables and missing data (known as high sparsity datasets), such as the term-document matrices which are used to represent text in text mining studies.

The second algorithm, a Support Vector Machine (SVM), gained popularity among the ML community for its high performance deriving accurate predictions in situations where the relationship between features and the outcome is non-linear. It uses a mathematical transformation known as the kernel trick, which we describe in more detail below.

Finally, we introduce an Artificial Neural Network (ANN), in which complex architecture and heavily modifiable parameters have led to it’s widespread use in many challenging applications, including image and video recognition. The addition of speciality neural networks, such as recurrent or convolutional networks, to ANNs has resulted in impressive performance on a range of tasks. Being highly parametrized models, ANNs are prone to over-fitting. Their performance may be improved using a regularization technique, such as DropConnect.

The ultimate goal of this manuscript is to imbue clinicians and medical researchers with both a foundational understanding of what ML is, how it may be used, as well as the practical skills to develop, evaluate, and compare their own algorithms to solve prediction problems in medicine.

How to follow this paper

We provide a conceptual introduction alongside practical instructions using code written for the R Statistical Programming Environment, which may be easily modified and applied to other classification or regression tasks. This code will act as a framework upon which researchers can develop their own ML studies. The models presented here may be fitted to diverse types of data and are, with minor modifications, suitable for analysing text and images.

This paper is divided into sections which describe the typical stages of a ML analysis: preparing data, training algorithms, validating algorithms, assessing algorithm performance, and applying new data to the trained models.

Throughout the paper, examples of R code used to the run the analyses are presented. The code is given in full in Additional file 1. The data which was used for these analyses are available in Addition file 2.

More information: Ithemal: Accurate, Portable and Fast Basic Block Throughput Estimation using Deep Neural Networks:

BHive: A Benchmark Suite and Measurement Framework for Validating x86-64 Basic Block Performance Models: … emal-measurement.pdf

Compiler Auto-Vectorization with Imitation Learning: … itation-learning.pdf


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