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Diminishing Returns in Machine Learning
Hardware Development and the Physical Frontier
The release of ChatGPT sparked a sensational reaction among media and ordinary people alike. It rapidly grew to 100 million users faster than any web app in history, including TikTok and Instagram. It is set to drastically change the economy by automating repetitive cognitive work in many walks of life. GPT-4, OpenAI’s latest release, scores within the 80th percentile of humans on many academic tests. A broader suite of machine learning technologies can, as Samuel Hammond puts it, give people “more capabilities than a CIA agent has today”.
This has led both optimists and pessimists to speculate about the likelihood of AGI - artificial general intelligence. Open Philanthropy defines AGI as “AI that can quickly and affordably be trained to perform nearly all economically and strategically valuable tasks at roughly human cost or less.” According to Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, “Our mission is to ensure that artificial general intelligence—AI systems that are generally smarter than humans—benefits all of humanity.” Critics of OpenAI’s ambitions often cite the risk of Unaligned Artificial Superintelligence, an AGI which is more intelligent than humanity to the point of being able to overthrow world governments and inflict catastrophic damage, for example by using nuclear weapons or bioweapons.
In my view, the severity of these concerns are based on incorrect assumptions. The implicit (if not explicit) attitude of Silicon Valley is one of indefinite growth. For good or for ill, they consistently believe that the trends of new technological research will continue at the current pace and direction that it is heading in the present. If anything, proponents of fast AGI believe that the rate of innovation is likely to be faster in the future than in the present. The purpose of this three-part series is to argue the opposite. I collect both empirical data about past progress in machine learning and an object-level description of the methods which have produced this progress. Using both, I argue that the varying methods used to achieve the current pace of machine learning progress will follow a peaking S-curve; they have largely either stagnated or will likely stagnate within the next ten years.
While exact predictions about the year AGI is invented, or whether it is invented at all, also depend on other factors such as the complexity of human thinking, the homogeneity of tasks, and the difficulty of information aggregation in institutions, what is certain is that the speed of AI development is an important factor. I believe that Effective Altruists generally overestimate the speed of future AI development and should consequently significantly reduce their estimates on the speed and likelihood of AGI development after this essay.
To understand the rate of machine learning progress, we have to understand how it is achieved. The single most important mechanism used to enhance AI across hardware, software, and data layers has been parallelization, the simultaneous processing of different actions. The underlying principle is simple: doing multiple things at once is faster than doing them one at a time. Examples of practical ideas to speed up machine learning using this principle are creating hardware which processes entire arrays of operations simultaneously, splitting processes within a model into independently functioning components, or combining multiple models. A convenient feature of machine learning algorithms is that they can be parallelized in several ways. For example:
Large matrix and vector multiplications can be parallelized at the hardware level
Different components of a machine learning network, which can be run separately without dependencies on each other, can be run on different pieces of hardware
The substance that is actually being processed can be subdivided. For example, a self-driving vehicle may need to avoid both moving vehicles and static obstacles, which may be more efficient to process separately.
This article will focus on optimizations to machine learning hardware, including parallelization. Optimization of software and data usage will be discussed in later parts. You will definitely see the theme of parallelization appear frequently, so it’s good to start building an intuition about it.
When it comes to hardware, the primary reason why parallelization is important is due to low level vector and matrix operations. You can think of a vector as a list of numbers. To find the sum of two vectors of the same length, you add the first two elements of the list together, then the second elements, and so on. The same is true for the (dot) product. You can process each of these additions separately, as is intuitive.
Matrix operations work the same way, except in two dimensions. Matrix multiplications essentially apply vector multiplication to pairs of rows in the first matrix and columns in the second matrix (or vice versa). The details are not too important for this article.
In the context of this article, the key takeaway from this section is that machine learning involves doing large quantities of repetitive math on rows or grids of numbers, which can be processed simultaneously.
A Paradigm Shift in Hardware
Specialized hardware for machine learning is a relatively new phenomenon. For much of history, machine learning has relied on the same hardware as everything else: CPUs (Central Processing Units), which aren’t capable of much parallelization. They got an upgrade later through GPUs (Graphical Processing Units), which as the name suggests, were designed for rendering detailed graphics more efficiently. Finally, the last few years marked the development of more specialized ways to use GPUs, as well as completely specialized hardware such as Google’s TPUs (Tensor Processing Units). Each of these developments are increasingly efficient solutions to the problem of multiplying many numbers in parallel.
Source: https://epochai.org/blog/compute-trends. You’ll see this again in the quantifying progress section.
There were two key points in machine learning hardware development: the introduction of graphical hardware and later specialized libraries for machine learning. When GPUs were adopted for machine learning, they resulted in an immediate several fold increase of both training and inference (answering) speeds relative to the CPUs of most computers, which only increased with further development. In 2007, NVIDIA introduced the first version of CUDA (Compute Unified Device Architecture), a programming tool for GPUs (Graphical Processor Units). Cuda was a crucial innovation for the development of machine learning because it allowed easy modification of the hardware-level instructions of GPUs.
[ Aside: One pet peeve for me is when people strongly emphasize Moore’s law in their arguments about machine learning hardware. Moore’s law, which measures transistor density, mostly measures materials science developments in how small and compact transistors can be manufactured. On the other hand, the majority of hardware improvement in machine learning has been due to completely unrelated developments in the organization of specialized hardware used for parallelization.]
An analogy is as follows: imagine taking the world’s most powerful nuclear power plant and funneling all of its electricity to running the world’s largest flashlight. Then, the flashlight is shined on a gigantic array of solar panels in order to finally deliver energy to the public. This process would obviously be highly inefficient and lose energy in all of its intermediate processes. The same can be said for intermediate steps in compilation.
These inefficiencies were removed as people began developing more specific practices for machine learning, including both detailed instruction sets for well-known machine learning network operations (CUDA kernels), as well as hardware specialized solely for machine learning, such as Google’s TPUs (Tensor Processing Units). There is no precise public timeline for when this development began to be taken seriously, but there are approximates. NVIDIA’s library for developing CUDA for machine learning, CUDNN, was released in 2014. Google’s TPUs were introduced to the public in 2016. Most researchers and engineers tend to agree that the early-mid 2010s were when ML hardware began to be taken seriously.
[Note: Some researchers would not consider CUDA optimization to be hardware optimization. It is technically a change in what software is being run. However, for the purposes of categorizing / pacing this series of articles, it makes more sense to put it here than to put it with the changes in algorithms covered in the next article in this series.]
Quantifying Hardware Improvement
As with any quantitative argument, the first questions you should ask are “what” and “how”. Metrics for machine learning performance are typically separated into two categories: training and inference. Training refers to the initial step in which a machine learning model receives feedback from data and improves its accuracy. Inference is the step in which the user actually interacts with the network, i.e. when you ask ChatGPT a question. There are several related metrics often used to quantify machine learning speed:
Throughput: the amount of data processed per second
Efficiency: the amount of data processed per watt
Cost-effectiveness: the amount of data processed per dollar
Sometimes the amount of data is replaced with the number of operations, but this is typically unimportant. Moreover, while differences between these metrics matter for technical tradeoffs and use cases, it is extremely unlikely that one of these metrics will drastically improve far beyond the other two. Consequently, I use “speed” as a vague umbrella term for all of these measures. However, the difference metrics does mean it will be somewhat difficult to precisely compare different data sources though.
What makes compiling these data sources far more annoying though, is the “how”. When referring to the earlier benchmarks, I used the term “model” instead of hardware. This is because different models, or machine learning algorithm structures, differ in speed. Machine learning hardware comparisons are made using a fixed set of models and training data. However, different studies use different models and data. So, keep in mind that you can’t simply list the numbers in each of the studies into one big ranking, you can only use the relative performance of different hardware in the same study as an approximate metric. Another reason these comparisons may vary based on methodology is that hardware is often optimized for different results. They may be optimized for training or inference (responding to queries from the user). All of this is to say that while it is possible to look at broad trends, looking at the precise tradeoffs along the efficient frontier, as on-the-ground ML companies do when making purchases, is beyond the scope of this article.
Instead the main point of this section is to ground expectations and future claims in some empirical data. The existing data is far from complete to draw an unambiguous conclusion; instead we will need to use a combination of the data and a technical understanding of the underlying causes of machine learning progress. I don’t expect anyone to draw a definite conclusion from what is presented here, but to at least narrow the range of possibilities slightly.
So, onto the data. This is arguably the highest quality paper on hardware comparison over time:
Pay particular attention to the bottom row. For products targeted towards individual users, improvement is highest in the most recent hardware, RTX 2060 SUPER (2019). However, in industry products, improvement is higher in hardware released in the middle years, P100 (2016) and V100 (2017).
In my view, this represents a lag in consumer-end products hitting the efficient frontier of hardware tradeoffs that matches what I hear from machine learning researchers and engineers.
Here are some comparisons of newer releases, both consumer and industry:
The amount of intra-generation (i.e. between H100s) variation may point to significant variation due to optimization for the tasks chosen for the benchmark.
Here is a blog comparing cost per dollar:
As expected by economies of scale, newer hardware is somewhat less efficient per dollar. Consumer hardware is also more efficient per dollar, though that’s likely also due to lacking some of the more costly optimizations of the higher-end hardware.
Here is some very outdated preliminary data on Google’s TPUs. I’m not sure what to make of this.
“the TPUs are on average 15x to 30x faster in executing Google’s regular machine learning workloads than a standard GPU/CPU combination (in this case, Intel Haswell processors and Nvidia K80 GPUs). And because power consumption counts in a data center, the TPUs also offer 30x to 80x higher TeraOps/Watt”
The results are likely somewhat exaggerated or cherry-picked as I don’t believe Google would have such an enormous advantage over NVIDIA and not be drastically scaling up its production/distribution of hardware. This view is shared by Semianalysis:
We believe Google has a performance/total cost of ownership (perf/TCO) advantage in AI workloads versus Microsoft and Amazon due to their holistic approach from microarchitecture to system architecture. The ability to commercialize generative AI to enterprises and consumers is a different discussion.
They provide a good example of this problem in practice:
The point is especially clear with Google’s own TPUv4i chip, which was designed for inference, yet cannot run inference on Google’s best models such as PaLM. The last-generation Google TPUv4 and Nvidia A100 could not have possibly been designed with large language models in mind.
OpenAI’s Triton instruction set has more modest improvements:
A particularly high quality source that doesn’t fit exactly into this part or the next is the total compute usage of models dataset by EpochAI.
Compute usage is a distinct metric than hardware effectiveness, since it also includes the gains from algorithm parallelizing (running a ML algorithm across multiple of the same hardware), or simply allowing the ML algorithm to run for a longer period of time. However, this data point is higher quality than most and is still useful in identifying trends. We can observe roughly similar changes in development trends as in the hardware trends.
At this point I’d like to remind everyone of the basic principle that scientific evidence is a negative test, not a positive test. It’s fairly common for someone to gather a bunch of data points, give a narrative that aligns with them, and then pretend that the evidence they’ve provided shows that their narrative is the only possible one. The purpose of this section is to show that the limited evidence up to the current day matches up with any narratives I tell in this article / later articles.
The Kernel Curse
This section covers the optimization of CUDA kernels, or machine learning instruction sets written specifically for smaller components used in an ML model. While CUDA does refer to the specific set of instructions released by NVIDIA, the same principles for optimization apply for alternative instruction sets, such as those from Google or OpenAI.
Recall the metaphor of the nuclear power plant and the flashlight. You can only remove the flashlight and directly convert nuclear to electricity once. This intuition mostly holds for low-level instruction optimization. It may be the case that a better software engineer can write a slightly faster instruction set than a junior engineer for the same machine learning operation. But the gap between the two is miniscule compared to the gap between the junior engineer and an auto-generated instruction set.
A feature of CUDA optimization is that it is typically hyper-specific to individual machine learning kernels. This is a double edged sword: research and development efforts concentrate on experimenting using functions that have optimized instruction sets and (relatively) neglects those that do not. This incentivizes an iterative model of optimization, and means that if a model requiring new functions is adopted, there will be some time until it reaches the level of CUDA optimization of incumbent models.
Parallelization and Resource Constraints
The first obvious consequence of parallelization is that in many cases*, the amount of computation occurs, but is simply distributed over more hardware. Moreover, data transfer time represents a nontrivial amount of time and electricity consumption, so more aggregate energy/time-device is being spent. Historically, resource constraints have not posed a significant limitation on the scaling that can be done through parallelization, at least for top research organizations. Instead talent, or more specifically the ability to separate processes within machine learning networks was the constraint. This is about to change.
[*It is true that there are cases where parallelization is done in a way which makes the overall algorithm more efficient, such as sparse matrix multiplication. However, this is primarily done at the algorithmic rather than hardware level. I will likely discuss this in more detail in the second article. ]
Semianalysis once again has an estimate for the costs of further scaling up models:
Regarding parameter counts growth, the industry is already reaching the limits for current hardware with dense models—a 1 trillion parameter model costs ~$300 million to train. With 100,000 A100s across 12,500 HGX / DGX systems, this would take about ~3 months to train. This is certainly within the realm of feasibility with current hardware for the largest tech companies. The cluster hardware costs would be a few billion dollars, which fits within the datacenter Capex budgets of titans like Meta, Microsoft, Amazon, Oracle, Google, Baidu, Tencent, and Alibaba.
Another order of magnitude scaling would take us to 10 trillion parameters. The training costs using hourly rates would scale to ~$30 billion. Even with 1 million A100s across 125,000 HGX / DGX systems, training this model would take over two years.
They later raise correctly that improvements to model architecture can make training more efficient and push out this boundary. However, this is nonetheless an example of an avenue for unconstrained growth turning into a tradeoff.
Parallelization sits as the unifying goal of many ML engineers. It is an obvious, direct way to generate improvements. As the constraint moves from technical talent to physical cost of the large arrays of hardware, it is likely that a change in approach is necessary.
To summarize the key points from the article:
Machine learning involves repetitive operations which can be processed simultaneously (parallelization)
The goal of hardware optimization is often parallization
The widespread development of machine learning hardware started in mid-early 2010s and a significant advance in investment and progress occurred in the late 2010s
CUDA optimization, or optimization of low-level instruction sets for machine learning operations (kernels), generated significant improvements but has exhausted its low-hanging fruit
The development of specialized hardware and instruction sets for certain kernels leads to fracturing and incentivizes incremental development, since newer kernels will be unoptimized and consequently slower
The tradeoff between hardware cost and labor cost is only beginning to be reached and will lead to an additional constraint on AI development.
I believe similar patterns of deceleration are at play across all of machine learning. I’ll make the case for these patterns in the context of architecture (algorithms) in part two and data in part three. The implications are significant:
AI progress in general is slowing down or close to slowing down.
AGI is unlikely to be reached in the near future (in my view <5% by 2043).
Economic forecasts of AI impacts should assume that AI capabilities are relatively close to the current day capabilities
Overregulation, particularly restriction on access rather than development, risks stomping out AI progress altogether. AI progress is neither inevitable nor infinite.
It is true that in some cases, a slowdown in growth in one area is counteracted by newly discovered growth in other areas. Technological innovation in manufacturing, transport, chemistry, medicine, and many other fields have drastically slowed, if not stagnated completely, in the present day. Even the famous Moore’s law, describing transistor density, has had to repeatedly lengthen its doubling period due to slowing technological growth.
None of this is to downplay the economic impacts of machine learning technology. Even the widespread application and adoption of current ML models with zero further improvement would be an economic revolution. Instead, it is to oppose the confident assertion that machine learning progress will only further accelerate in the future. That is one possible scenario, though it is far from guaranteed and in my view, for the reasons stated in this part and future parts, an improbable one. When the general narrative and esoteric data conflict, it is often difficult to determine which one is correct. However, when they both align, they should be taken as a baseline which requires truly exceptional circumstances to overcome.
The stakes are high, but they are bidirectional. There are real consequences for overcorrection and undercorrection. I couldn’t have put it better than Jon Askonas and Samuel Hammond did in American Affairs:
It is our hope that [AI Safety] eschews an over-focus on extreme tail risk and instead develops measures that improve the safety and reliability of the kinds of systems we are likely to deploy, and does so in a manner respectful of the governance traditions that have underpinned scientific progress in the West.