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Efficient and Robust Deep Learning through Approximate Computing

posted on 28.07.2020 by Sanchari Sen

Deep Neural Networks (DNNs) have greatly advanced the state-of-the-art in a wide range of machine learning tasks involving image, video, speech and text analytics, and are deployed in numerous widely-used products and services. Improvements in the capabilities of hardware platforms such as Graphics Processing Units (GPUs) and specialized accelerators have been instrumental in enabling these advances as they have allowed more complex and accurate networks to be trained and deployed. However, the enormous computational and memory demands of DNNs continue to increase with growing data size and network complexity, posing a continuing challenge to computing system designers. For instance, state-of-the-art image recognition DNNs require hundreds of millions of parameters and hundreds of billions of multiply-accumulate operations while state-of-the-art language models require hundreds of billions of parameters and several trillion operations to process a single input instance. Another major obstacle in the adoption of DNNs, despite their impressive accuracies on a range of datasets, has been their lack of robustness. Specifically, recent efforts have demonstrated that small, carefully-introduced input perturbations can force a DNN to behave in unexpected and erroneous ways, which can have to severe consequences in several safety-critical DNN applications like healthcare and autonomous vehicles. In this dissertation, we explore approximate computing as an avenue to improve the speed and energy efficiency of DNNs, as well as their robustness to input perturbations.

Approximate computing involves executing selected computations of an application in an approximate manner, while generating favorable trade-offs between computational efficiency and output quality. The intrinsic error resilience of machine learning applications makes them excellent candidates for approximate computing, allowing us to achieve execution time and energy reductions with minimal effect on the quality of outputs. This dissertation performs a comprehensive analysis of different approximate computing techniques for improving the execution efficiency of DNNs. Complementary to generic approximation techniques like quantization, it identifies approximation opportunities based on the specific characteristics of three popular classes of networks - Feed-forward Neural Networks (FFNNs), Recurrent Neural Networks (RNNs) and Spiking Neural Networks (SNNs), which vary considerably in their network structure and computational patterns.

First, in the context of feed-forward neural networks, we identify sparsity, or the presence of zero values in the data structures (activations, weights, gradients and errors), to be a major source of redundancy and therefore, an easy target for approximations. We develop lightweight micro-architectural and instruction set extensions to a general-purpose processor core that enable it to dynamically detect zero values when they are loaded and skip future instructions that are rendered redundant by them. Next, we explore LSTMs (the most widely used class of RNNs), which map sequences from an input space to an output space. We propose hardware-agnostic approximations that dynamically skip redundant symbols in the input sequence and discard redundant elements in the state vector to achieve execution time benefits. Following that, we consider SNNs, which are an emerging class of neural networks that represent and process information in the form of sequences of binary spikes. Observing that spike-triggered updates along synaptic connections are the dominant operation in SNNs, we propose hardware and software techniques to identify connections that can be minimally impact the output quality and deactivate them dynamically, skipping any associated updates.

The dissertation also delves into the efficacy of combining multiple approximate computing techniques to improve the execution efficiency of DNNs. In particular, we focus on the combination of quantization, which reduces the precision of DNN data-structures, and pruning, which introduces sparsity in them. We observe that the ability of pruning to reduce the memory demands of quantized DNNs decreases with precision as the overhead of storing non-zero locations alongside the values starts to dominate in different sparse encoding schemes. We analyze this overhead and the overall compression of three different sparse formats across a range of sparsity and precision values and propose a hybrid compression scheme that identifies that optimal sparse format for a pruned low-precision DNN.

Along with improved execution efficiency of DNNs, the dissertation explores an additional advantage of approximate computing in the form of improved robustness. We propose ensembles of quantized DNN models with different numerical precisions as a new approach to increase robustness against adversarial attacks. It is based on the observation that quantized neural networks often demonstrate much higher robustness to adversarial attacks than full precision networks, but at the cost of a substantial loss in accuracy on the original (unperturbed) inputs. We overcome this limitation to achieve the best of both worlds, i.e., the higher unperturbed accuracies of the full precision models combined with the higher robustness of the low precision models, by composing them in an ensemble.

In summary, this dissertation establishes approximate computing as a promising direction to improve the performance, energy efficiency and robustness of neural networks.


Degree Type

Doctor of Philosophy


Electrical and Computer Engineering

Campus location

West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Anand Raghunathan

Additional Committee Member 2

Kaushik Roy

Additional Committee Member 3

Sumeet K. Gupta

Additional Committee Member 4

Vijay Raghunathan