Inexact CPU Makes Errors With Increased Efficiency

Rice University announced work on a computer chip that is intentionally not 100% accurate, that gains efficiency through these errors. Although, I can imagine some applications where this may be acceptable, but it seems to be a bad idea, in general.

Researchers have unveiled an “inexact” computer chip that challenges the industry’s 50-year pursuit of accuracy. The design improves power and resource efficiency by allowing for occasional errors. Prototypes unveiled this week at the ACM International Conference on Computing Frontiers in Cagliari, Italy, are at least 15 times more efficient than today’s technology.

The concept is deceptively simple: Slash power use by allowing processing components — like hardware for adding and multiplying numbers — to make a few mistakes. By cleverly managing the probability of errors and limiting which calculations produce errors, the designers have found they can simultaneously cut energy demands and dramatically boost performance. One example of the inexact design approach is “pruning,” or trimming away some of the rarely used portions of digital circuits on a microchip. Another innovation, “confined voltage scaling,” trades some performance gains by taking advantage of improvements in processing speed to further cut power demands. In their initial simulated tests in 2011, the researchers showed that pruning some sections of traditionally designed microchips could boost performance in three ways: The pruned chips were twice as fast, used half as much energy and were half the size. In the new study, the team delved deeper and implemented their ideas in the processing elements on a prototype silicon chip. “In the latest tests, we showed that pruning could cut energy demands 3.5 times with chips that deviated from the correct value by an average of 0.25 percent,” said study co-author Avinash Lingamneni, a Rice graduate student. “When we factored in size and speed gains, these chips were 7.5 times more efficient than regular chips. Chips that got wrong answers with a larger deviation of about 8 percent were up to 15 times more efficient.”

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