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Arm may be a bit late to the whole machine learning and artificial intelligence bandwagon, at least with specialized designs for modern chips. But the designer of chip intellectual property has everybody beat in terms of volumes of AI and machine-learning chips deployed in the widest array of devices.

Arm’s customers, which include rivals Intel and Nvidia, are busy deploying AI technology everywhere. The company is also creating specific machine-learning instructions and other technology to make sure AI gets built into just about everything electronic, not just the high-end devices going into servers.

On the server level, customers such as Amazon are bringing ARM-based machine learning chips into datacenters. I talked with Steve Roddy, vice president of the machine learning group at Arm at the company’s recent TechCon event in San Jose, California.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.


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Above: Steve Roddy is the vice president of the machine learning group at Arm.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

VentureBeat: What is your focus on machine learning?

Steve Roddy: We have had a machine learning processor in the market for a year or so. We aimed at the premium consumer segment, which was the obvious first choice. What is Arm famous for? Cell phone processors. That’s where the notion of a dedicated NPU (Neural Processing Unit) first appeared, in high-end cell phones. Now you have Apple, Samsung, MediaTech, [and] Huawei all designing their own, Qualcomm, and so on. It’s commonplace in a $1,000 phone.

What we’re introducing is a series of processors to serve not only that market, but also mainstream and lower-end markets. What we originally envisioned — we entered the market to serve people building VR glasses, smartphones, places where you care more about performance than cost balancing and so on. History would suggest that the feature set shows up in the high-end cell phone, takes a couple years, and then moves down to the mainstream-ish $400-500 phone, and then a couple years later that winds up in the cheaper phone.

I think what’s most interesting about how fast the whole NPU machine learning thing is moving is that that is happening much faster, but for different reasons than — it used to be, okay, the 8 megapixel sensor starts here, and then when it’s cheap enough it goes here, and then when it’s even cheaper it goes there. It’s not just that the component cost goes down and integrates in and it’s replaced by something else. It’s that machine learning algorithms can be used to make different or smarter decisions about how systems are integrated and put together to add value in a different way, or subtract cost in a different way.

Simon Segars at Arm TechCon 2019

Above: Simon Segars at Arm TechCon 2019

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

VentureBeat: One talk today described how a neural network will figure out how to do something, and then you cull out the stuff that isn’t really necessary. You wind up with a much more efficient or smaller thing that could be embedded into microcontrollers.

Roddy: That’s a whole burgeoning field. Taking a step back, machine learning has really two components. There’s the creation of the algorithm, the learning, or training, as it’s called, which happens almost exclusively in the cloud. That, to me — I like to jokingly say that most practitioners would agree that it’s the apocryphal million monkeys with a million typewriters. Poof, one of them writes a Shakespeare sonnet. That’s kind of what the training process is like.

In fact, Google is explicit about it. Google has a thing now called AutoML. Let’s say you have an algorithm you picked from some open source repository, and it’s pretty good at the task you want. It’s some image recognition thing you’ve tweaked a little bit. You can load that into Google’s cloud service. They do this because it runs the meter, obviously, on compute services. But basically it’s a question of how much you want to pay.

They will randomly try pseudo-randomly created different variations of the neural net. More filters here, more layers there, reverse things, do them out of order, and just rerun the training set all over again. Oh, this one’s now .1% more or less accurate. It’s just how much you want to spend. $1,000 or $10,000 in compute time? A million monkeys, a million typewriters. Look, I discovered one that’s 2% more accurate at face recognition, voice recognition, whatever it happens to be.

Set all that aside. That’s the development of the neural net. The deployment is known as inference. Now I want to run one particular pass of that inference on the object I want to recognize — what face, what object. I want to run it on a car and recognize Grandma in the crosswalk, or what-have-you. Arm is obviously focused on those volume silicon markets where it’s deployed, in the edges or the endpoints.

You stick a bunch of sensors in the walls of the convention center, for example, and the lights go out and it’s filled with smoke because it’s on fire. You could have sensors that recognize there’s fire, activate, and look for bodies on the floor. They can send out distress signals to the fire department. “Here’s where the people are.” “Don’t go to this room, there’s nobody there.” “Go to this room.” It’s a pretty cool thing. But you want it to be super efficient. You don’t want to rewire the entire convention center. You’d like to just stick up this battery-operated thing and expect it to run for three or six months. Every six months you go in and change the safety system with that sensor.

That’s a question of taking the abstract model that a mathematician has created and reducing it to fit on a constrained device. That’s one of the biggest challenges still ahead. We have our processors. They’re great at implementing highly efficient versions of neural nets in end devices. The process of getting from the mathematician, who is conceiving new types of neural nets and understands the math inside it, and connecting it down to the lower-level programmer, who’s an embedded systems programmer — there’s a huge skills gap there.

If you’re a 24-year-old math wizard and you just got your undergraduate math degree and your graduate degree in data science and you come out of Stanford, and the big internet companies are having fistfights outside your dorm to offer you a job — you’re brilliant at neural nets and the mathematics behind it, but you don’t have any skills at embedded software programming, by definition. The guy who’s an embedded software engineer and assembling CPUs and GPUs and ARM NPUs, putting operating systems on chips and doing drivers and low-level firmware, he’s told, “Hey, here’s this code with a neural net in it. Make sure it runs on this constrained little device that has 2 megs of memory and a 200MHz CPU. Make it work.”

Well, wait a minute. There’s a gap there. The embedded guy says, “I don’t know what this neural net does. It requires 10 times as much compute as I have. What’s the 90% that I can throw away? How do I know?” The guy at the high level, the mathematician, doesn’t know a thing about constrained devices. He deals with the math, the model of the brain. He doesn’t know embedded programming. Most companies don’t have both people in the same company. Very few highly integrated companies put everyone in a room together to have a conversation.

Simon Segars talks about custom instructions at Arm TechCon 2019.

Above: Simon Segars talks about custom instructions at Arm TechCon 2019.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

Quite often — say you’re the mathematician and I’m the embedded software guy. We have to have an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) to even have a conversation. You’re willing to license the model output, but you’re not giving up your source data set, your training data set, because that’s your gold. That’s the value. You give me a trained model that recognizes cats or people or Grandma in the crosswalk, fine, but you’re not going to let out the details. You’re not going to tell me what goes on. And here I am trying to explain how this doesn’t fit in my constrained system. What can you do for me?

You have this gulf. You’re not an embedded programmer. I’m not a mathematician. What do we do? That’s an area where we’re investing and others are investing. That’s going to be one of the areas of magic over time, in the future. That helps close the loop between it. It’s not a one-way thing, where you license me an algorithm and I keep hacking it down until I get it to fit. You gave it to me 99% accurate, but I can only implement it 82% accurate, because I had to take out so much of the compute to make it fit. That’s better than nothing, but I sure wish I could go back and retrain and have an endless loop back and forth where we could collaborate in a better way. Think of it as collaborating between constrained and ideal.

VentureBeat: I wonder if the part here that sounds familiar is the same or very different, but Dipti Vachani gave that talk about the automotive consortium and how everyone is going to collaborate on the self-driving cars, taking things from prototypes to production. She was saying we can’t put supercomputers in these cars. We have to get them down into much smaller, affordable devices that can go into production units. Is some of what you’re talking about in any way similar? The supercomputers have figured out these algorithms, and now those need to be reduced down to a practical level.

Roddy: It’s the same problem, right? When these neural nets are created by the mathematicians, they’re typically using floating point arithmetic. They’re doing it in an abstract with infinite precision and essentially infinite compute power. If you want more compute power, you fire up a few more blades, fire up a whole datacenter. What do you care? If you’re willing to write the check to Amazon or Google, you can do it.

VentureBeat: But you can’t put the datacenter in a car.

Self-driving cars need a standards body to get to the finish line.

Above: Self-driving cars need a standards body to get to the finish line. Minneapolis-based VSI Labs’ research vehicle at Arm TechCon.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

Roddy: Right. Once I have the shape of the algorithm, it becomes a question — you hear terms like quantization, pruning, clustering. How do you reduce the complexity in a way that prunes out the parts that actually don’t matter? There’s lots of neural connections in your brain — this is trying to mimic a brain — but half of them are garbage. Half of them do something real. There are strong connections that transmit the information and weak ones that can be pruned away. You’d still recognize your partner or your spouse if you lost half your brain cells. The same thing for trained neural nets. They have lots of connections between the imagined neurons. Most of them you could get rid of, and you’d still get pretty good accuracy.

VentureBeat: But you’d worry that one thing you got rid of was the thing that prevents a car wreck in some situation.

Roddy: It’s a test case. If I get rid of half the computation, what happens? This is the so-called retraining. Retrain, or more importantly do the training with the target in mind. Train not assuming infinite capacity of a datacenter or a supercomputer, but train with the idea that I’ve only got limited compute.

Automotive is a great example. Let’s say it’s 10 years from now and you’re the lab director of pedestrian safety systems for XYZ German component company. Your algorithms are running in the latest and greatest Lexus and Mercedes cars. They each have $5,000 worth of compute hardware. Your algorithms are also running in a nine-year-old Chinese sedan that happens to have a first generation of your system.

One of your scientists over here comes up with the best new algorithm. It’s 5% more accurate. Yay! In the Mercedes it’s 5% more accurate, anyway, but you have an obligation — in fact you probably have a contract that says you’ll do quarterly updates — to the other guy. Making it worse, now we’ve got 17 platforms from 10 car companies. How do you take this new mathematical invention and put it in all those places? There has to be some structured automation around that. That’s part of what the automotive consortium is trying to do in a contained field.

The technology we’re developing is around “How do we create those bridges?” How do you put a model, for example, into the training sets that the developer uses — the TensorFlows, the Caffes — that allows them to say, “Well, instead of assuming I’m running in the cloud for inference, what if I was running on this $2 microcontroller in a smart doorbell?” Train for that, instead of train for the abstract. There’s a lot of infrastructure that could be put in place.

For good or for bad, it has to cut across industry. You have to build bridges between data scientists at Facebook, chip guys at XYZ Semiconductor, box builders, and the software algorithm people that are trying to inter-upgrade it all together.

VentureBeat: There could be competitors like Nvidia in the alliance. How do you keep this on a level above the competition?

Roddy: What Nvidia does — to me, they’re a customer. They sell chips.