Previously published in Forbes on December 1, 2017
Isn’t it curious that two of the top conferences on artificial intelligence are organized by NVIDIA and Intel? What do chip companies have to teach us about algorithms? The answer is that nowadays, for machine learning (ML), and particularly deep learning (DL), it’s all about GPUs.
In a previous article, I made the case to every CEO and CTO that “Machine learning allows us to make even better use of the data we have, as well as the data we don’t currently possess, and answer the questions we didn’t know we should ask.”
As more companies build AI-driven products, technology providers are responding to this demand by providing products that are computationally more powerful and easier to use and manage in production.
GPUs are driving the next wave of breakthroughs.
Why GPUs Are So Important To Machine Learning
GPUs have almost 200 times more processors per chip than a CPU. For example, an Intel Xeon Platinum 8180 Processor has 28 Cores, while an NVIDIA Tesla K80 has 4,992 CUDA cores. While a CPU core is more powerful than a GPU core, the vast majority of this power goes unused by ML applications. A CPU core is designed to support an extremely broad variety of tasks (e.g., render a webpage, drive word processors and enterprise software, manage peripherals) in addition to performing computations, whereas a GPU core is optimized exclusively for data computations. Because of this singular focus, a GPU core is simpler and has a smaller die area than a CPU, allowing many more GPU cores to be crammed onto a single chip. Consequently, ML applications, which perform large numbers of computations on a vast amount of data, can see huge (i.e., 5 to 10 times) performance improvements when running on a GPU versus a CPU.
Having recognized this fundamental fact a few years ago, the tech industry, particularly the ML crowd, has focused its efforts on taking advantage of the GPU. However, this is not a simple task. All layers of the compute stack have to be redesigned to take advantage of the GPU’s power.
Recent Developments For GPUs
NVIDIA has so far been the main provider of GPU chips for ML acceleration. The company has powered the AWS compute-optimized instances for the past year.
Furthermore, chip manufacturers are about to release chips that are architected specifically for ML from the ground up (rather than continuing to optimize GPUs, which were originally designed for graphics processing). NVIDIA is shipping the Tesla V100, which incorporates Tensor Cores designed specifically for DL, in addition to GPU cores. Google announced its Tensor Processing Unit (TPU) last year that powers its main services: Google Search, Street View, Photos and Google Translate. Finally, Intel announced this month its Nervana Neural Processor, which was also architected, in collaboration with Facebook, to optimize neural network computing.
Building The GPU Compute Stack
Having super-fast GPUs is a great starting point. In order to take full advantage of their power, the compute stack has to be re-engineered from top to bottom.
A new category of servers needs to be built to feed the beast. This is necessary to send (and store) data to the GPU at the rate at which it is capable of consuming it, requiring up to 10x improvement in bandwidth.
NVIDIA just started shipping its DGX-1 server. Data throughput and storage have been optimized in order to take full advantage of the processing power of the eight Tesla-V100 processors included in the box.
Facebook recently announced its second generation of AI-hardware (“Big Basin”) to power its own core services: speech and text translations, photo classifiers and real-time video classification.
• Data Center
An article I wrote last month highlighted the impact of ML for cloud providers. Since then, new GPU-related developments have emerged.
Google just made its TPUs available on its compute platform.
Intel just announced its Nervana DevCloud, which is limited for the time being to research and experimentation.
Finally, a super-computing veteran of 45 years is entering the fray. Leveraging its decades of experience in high-performance computing (HPC), Cray will soon be offering its supercomputers for rent on Microsoft Azure. These servers can host a large number NVIDIA Tesla GPUs.
• Frameworks, Models And Algorithms
Optimized hardware requires optimized software. All cloud providers have optimized the major frameworks (Tensorflow, PyTorch, Caffe, MXNet) to their platform. Furthermore, GPU vendors are rewriting the major models and algorithms (NVIDIA Digits, Intel Nervana Graph) to take full advantage of the GPU’s power.
Through the GPU Open Analytics Initiative, companies such as MapD (DB, visualization) and H20 (ML) are rewriting fundamental technologies like databases and programming languages in order to eliminate data copies, which, if ignored, may significantly increase overall execution time.
Finally, some technologies have reached a degree of fidelity high enough to be offered as services: AWS, Google and Microsoft each offer various flavors of speech recognition, translation and synthesis. Similarly, China’s Megvii’s face recognition service has become very popular.
• The Edge
For some applications, the ML models that have been trained in the data center must be computed at the edge (i.e., close to the end user). In the case of autonomous driving, for example, the car’s brain is trained in the data center but must be run in the car.
Now that machine learning has become mainstream in the data center, dedicated products are being released for edge computing. For example, NVIDIA provides the Drive PXfamily of accelerator cards that host 1-4 GPUs, as well as multiple video and other sensor inputs. They can thus power anything from simple highway driving today to fully autonomous driving in the future.
A New GPU-Driven ML Landscape
From this whirlwind survey of innovation driven by GPUs, one can anticipate increases in processing power of two to five times over the next months, from which a second wave of machine learning breakthroughs is bound to emerge, allowing us to solve a brand-new class of challenges.