The hardware behind analog AI

20 Nov 2021
Explainer
5 minute read

IBM Research developed a new energy-efficient chip which uses phase-change memory to encode the weights of a neural network directly onto the chip.

IBM Research developed a new energy-efficient chip which uses phase-change memory to encode the weights of a neural network directly onto the chip.

Training an AI model today can have a huge carbon footprint. The IBM Research AI Hardware Center is working on hardware and systems to scale AI workflows as efficiently as possible. Our chip, dubbed Fusion, uses the storage capability and physical attributes of phase-change memory (PCM) devices to more efficiently implement an artificial neural network. This type of in-memory computing hardware increases speed and energy efficiency, offering potential performance improvements necessary for the next generation of AI.

The advantage of analog AI

Conventional computers are based on von Neumann architecture, where each computation transfers data from DRAM memory to the CPU. This task switching results in a practical limitation on how fast a computer can work, never achieving the true compute ability of a CPU. This is known as the von Neumann bottleneck.

Graphical representation of von Neumann bottleneck
The bottleneck in coventional computers happens when each computation transfers data from the DRAM memory to the CPU.

By leveraging the physical properties of PCM devices, analog AI chips overcome the von Neumann bottleneck, performing computation in the the same place where the data is stored. Because there is no movement of data, tasks can be performed in a fraction of the time and require much less energy.

Graphical representation of a processing unit and computational memory
Analog AI chips overcome the bottleneck by performing computations where the data is stored.

For example, moving 64 bits of data from DRAM to CPU consumes 1-2nJ, which is 10,000–2,000,000 times more energy than is dissipated in a PCM device performing a multiplication operation (1-100fJ).

When scaled across billions of operations, these energy savings are immense. PCM devices also show promise as a more reliable data store — PCM does not consume power when the devices are inactive, and the data will be retained for up to 10 years even when the power supply is turned off.

The physics behind PCM

With phase-change memory, an electrical pulse is applied to the material, changing the conductance of the device by switching the material between amorphous and crystalline phases. A low electrical pulse will make the PCM device more crystalline (less resistance). A high electrical pulse will make the device more amorphous (more resistance). Instead of recording a 0 or 1 like in the digital world, the PCM device records its state as a continuum of values between the two. This value is called a synaptic weight. These weights are stored in the physical atomic configuration of each PCM in a non-volatile way (the weights are retained when the power supply is turned off).

Animation showing transition between low current and high current, transitioning from a crystalline to amorphous state
PCM devices are programmed to have a value between 0 and 1 by applying various strentgths of an electrical pulse.

When PCM devices are arranged in a crossbar configuration, it’s possible to perform an analog matrix-vector multiplication in a single time step, exploiting the advantages of multi-level storage capability and Kirchhoff’s circuits laws.

Graphical representation of PCM devices arranged in a crossbar configuration
Arranging PCM devices in a crossbar configuration allows matrix-vector multiplication to happen in a single step.

Analog AI and neural networks

In deep learning inference, data propagation through multiple layers of a neural network involves a sequence of matrix multiplications, as each layer can be represented as a matrix of synaptic weights. On the Fusion chip, these weights are stored in the conductance states of PCM devices. The devices are arranged in crossbar arrays, creating an artificial neural network where all matrix multiplications are performed in-place in an analog manner. This structure allows inference to be performed using little energy with high areal density of synapses.

Compare the construction of the chip to a neural network

The arrays on the Fusion chip directly relate to the synapse layers of the neural network. Each synapse layer consists of two arrays, one encoding the positive part of the synaptic weight and the other encoding the negative part.

Illustration of a comparison between a an analog ai chip and a neural network

The first set of arrays, each made of 784 x 250 PCM devices, correspond to the synapses connecting the 784 input neurons to the 250 hidden neurons of the neural network. The second set of arrays, each made of 250 x 10 PCM devices, correspond to the synapses connecting the 250 hidden neurons to the 10 output neurons. The output layer consists of 10 output neurons representing the 10 numbers (0 to 9) classified by the neural network.

Each synaptic weight of the neural network is encoded as the difference in conductance values of two corresponding PCM devices, one in the positive array and one in the negative array. The calculation of the synapse layer output is done by subtracting the output of the negative array from the output of the positive array.

Applying PCM arrays to recognize hand-drawn digits

To illustrate the early capabilities of analog AI, we encoded a neural network directly onto an IBM Fusion chip. The neural network was trained to recognize a number drawn on the screen in real time.

While this classic challenge has widely been conquered by conventional computers, we successfully displayed how the Fusion chip could dynamically interpret vector inputs from the numbers drawn on the screen.

Converting a digital image into voltages

After a number is drawn in a 28px by 28px input area, each pixel is assigned a value depending on its shade of gray. The pixels are transformed into a vector made of 784 values which are then converted into voltages. These voltages are then fed into the first set of arrays.

Image showing how the analog ai chip converts a digital image into voltages
Each pixel on a hand drawn number is assigned a value which is fed into the first set of arrays of the Fusion chip.

First set of arrays

The first set of arrays made of 784 x 250 PCM devices arranged in a crossbar configuration, representing the first layer of a neural network. The 784 input voltages from the input layer are fed into both positive and negative arrays, which are needed to encode the synaptic weights. Output current is then obtained by subtracting the positive and negative currents of the two arrays.

Fusion’s first set of arrays represent the first layer of a neural network.
Fusion’s first set of arrays represent the first layer of a neural network.

Second set of arrays

Output currents from the first set of arrays go through a nonlinear activation function to obtain the final output of the 250 hidden neurons. This current is fed into a second set or arrays: one positive, one negative, each made of 250 x 10 PCM devices.

Fusion’s second set of arrays represent the second layer of a neural network.
Fusion’s second set of arrays represent the second layer of a neural network.

Image classification

The 10 output currents from the second set of arrays are subtracted to obtain the output of the second synapse layer. This output then goes through another nonlinear activation function to obtain the final output of the neural network, and the system’s classification of the number that was drawn.

Fusion’s output layer represents the output layer of a neural network
Fusion’s output layer represents the output layer of a neural network.

What's next for analog AI

The Fusion chip is a test prototype with which only a single PCM device can be accessed at a time. Future chips will allow us to perform the matrix multiplications all in parallel in a single time step, greatly improving the speed and energy efficiency.

Learn more about:

AI Hardware: We’re developing new devices and architectures to support the tremendous processing power AI requires to realize its full potential.

Date

20 Nov 2021