Enabling high-performance, mixed-signal approximate computing
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For decades, the semiconductor industry enjoyed exponential improvements in microprocessor power and performance with the device scaling of successive technology generations. Scaling limitations at sub-micron technologies, however, have ceased to provide these historical performance improvements within a limited power budget. While device scaling provides a larger number of transistors per chip, for the same chip area, a growing percentage of the chip will have to be powered off at any given time due to power constraints. As such, the architecture community has focused on energy-efficient designs and is looking to specialized hardware to provide gains in performance. A focus on energy efficiency, along with increasingly less reliable transistors due to device scaling, has led to research in the area of approximate computing, where accuracy is traded for energy efficiency when precise computation is not required. There is a growing body of approximation-tolerant applications that, for example, compute on noisy or incomplete data, such as real-world sensor inputs, or make approximations to decrease the computation load in the analysis of cumbersome data sets. These approximation-tolerant applications span application domains, such as machine learning, image processing, robotics, and financial analysis, among others. Since the advent of the modern processor, computing models have largely presumed the attribute of accuracy. A willingness to relax accuracy requirements, however, with goal of gaining energy efficiency, warrants the re-investigation of the potential of analog computing. Analog hardware offers the opportunity for fast and low-power computation; however, it presents challenges in the form of accuracy. Where analog compute blocks have been applied to solve fixed-function problems, general-purpose computing has relied on digital hardware implementations that provide generality and programmability. The work presented in this thesis aims to answer the following questions: Can analog circuits be successfully integrated into general-purpose computing to provide performance and energy savings? And, what is required to address the historical analog challenges of inaccuracy, programmability, and a lack of generality to enable such an approach? This thesis work investigates a neural approach as a means to address the historical analog challenges of inaccuracy, programmability, and generality and to enable the use of analog circuits in general-purpose, high-performance computing. The first piece of this thesis work investigates the use of analog circuits at the microarchitecture level in the form of an analog neural branch predictor. The task of branch prediction can tolerate imprecision, as roll-back mechanisms correct for branch mispredictions, and application-level accuracy remains unaffected. We show that analog circuits enable the implementation of a highly-accurate, neural-prediction algorithm that is infeasible to implement in the digital domain. The second piece of this thesis work presents a neural accelerator that targets approximation-tolerant code. Analog neural acceleration provides application speedup of 3.3x and energy savings of 12.1x with a quality loss less than 10% for all except one approximation-tolerant benchmark. These results show that, using a neural approach, analog circuits can be applied to provide performance and energy efficiency in high-performance, general-purpose computing.