Maximal Computing

Maximal Computing #

Problems of Proportionality #

We use “maximal computing” to refer to any computationally intensive work, including working with blockchains, Big Data, and Machine Learning (ML) and other types of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Such systems are everywhere these days. For example, AI technologies have been applied to speech recognition, natural language processing, computer vision, and many other areas. In many parts of the world, AI is present within our homes, cars, mobile phones. New applications of AI are being implemented with the help of large publicly open datasets, available on the web (for example open crawl), which in turn are fed to models trained with huge hardware capabilities (training on GPUs and TPUs). Such maximal computing may help with adaptation to climate change; Gordon S. Blair gives the example of flooding resilience:

The challenges facing flood risk management practitioners are considerable as they make long-term decisions, e.g., about investments in flood defenses, with limited budgets. [...] Thanks to developments in digital technology, though, major changes are now anticipated, in particular related to the plethora of data becoming available (cf. big data)—from satellite imagery, from sensors deployed around catchments (cf. the Internet of Things), from detailed studies carried out by local authorities, from citizen science, and from mining data from the web.

(Blair 2020)

AI models can reach high accuracy scores but come with the cost of having high carbon emissions. While it is scientifically well recognized that global warming results from carbon and other greenhouse gases, the broader AI community has been slow to understand the relevance of its activities. As Knowles et. al (2021) note:

A serious and proportional response to the climate emergency would [...] involve constraining energy demand and mitigating drivers of infrastructure growth, and as a result, also consuming less energy. In real terms for computing, this means manufacturing fewer devices, storing and processing less data, generally managing with less compute power; and in terms of technical ambitions, scaling back the Internet of Things, resisting the temptation to throw AI and blockchain at every problem, and breaking free of the cycle of ever increasing demand for computation.

(Knowles et al. 2021)

How do we decide whether a computational process is proportionate to the benefits it may create? In other words, when does it become appropriate to ’throw AI and blockchain’ at a problem? Can the underlying goals of computationally intensive work sometimes be met in different ways? And when we do decide to use computationally intensive processes, how can we optimise them from a climate and sustainability perspective?

NEED HIGHER QUALITY PIC Compute needed to train state-of-the-art models rises exponentially since ~2012


  • Tesla autopilot (fleet data is sent to large computing centre)
  • State-of-the-art NLP models like GPT-3, MT-NLG, Google Switch, Transformer

Different viewpoints to maximal computing software:

  1. Ethics: are there inequalities or biases implied (e.g. gender, race, language, class, geography, disability)? you do not fully comprehend how large models learn/make inference, researchers with fewer computing resources can’t reach state-of-the-art results.
  2. Purpose: is the software used to achieve a certain goal? Can the goal be valued as positive/negative in the context of greening DH? For example AI for Sustainability vs. Mass Surveillance Software
  3. Execution: how lean was the software building process / is the software? Are there ways to improve or to green it (i.e. reduce resource consumption)?

The Critical Algorithm Studies reading list and Zotero Library contain further reading on the politics and ethics of AI and algorithms more broadly. The Data Hazards project is developing labels that seek to communicate the risks involved in Data Science approaches, from concerns about privacy to high environmental cost: ‘Considering worst case scenarios is one part of this puzzle. Worst case scenarios free us from trying to predict the future: we’re not saying that something will happen’ (Thurlby, Natalie and Di Cara, Nina 2021).

Ways to reverse the trend or show the implications of Maximal Computing:

Focusing on Natural Language Processing, Strubell et al. (2019 recommend “a concerted effort by industry and academia to promote research of more computationally efficient algorithms, as well as hardware that requires less energy” as well as the development and promotion of “easy-to-use APIs implementing more efficient alternatives to brute-force grid search for hyperparameter tuning, e.g. random or Bayesian hyperparameter search techniques” (Strubell, Ganesh, and McCallum 2019).


Measures of efficiency #

Machine Learning models are can be measured using metrics like T-scores, confusion matrices, accuracy, recall, Area under the ROC curve, LOGLOSS (Minaee 2019). It is becoming more common to see the literature report on the electricity and environmental consumption required for advanced maximal computational research. Some useful environmentally relevant metrics to consider when planning your AI research projects are:

  • Floating point operations (FPO), in FLOPS, GigaFlops
  • Processor utilisation (%), % use of CPU/GPU/TPU
  • Electricity consumption, in Watt Hours (Wh)

Lacoste, Luccioni and Schmidt have been researching environmental impacts of AI and ML, and have developed an online open source Machine Learning CO2 impact calculator. This is an important tool to help our understanding of the emissions of ML based humanities research.

Red AI and Green AI #

“The vital first step toward more equitable and green AI is the clear and transparent reporting of electricity consumption, carbon emissions, and cost. You can’t improve what you can’t measure.”

Jesse Dodge, Allen Institute for AI, coauthor of Green AI.

In 2020, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) suggested that to measure efficiency of AI models we need to report on the amount of work required. This includes the work to train the model, tune the hyperparameters and retrain the model repeatedly in however many iterations you use (called Red AI). Understanding the costs for a single document, the size of the data set and the steps in your pipeline (such as preprocessing, cleaning, and enriching) helps you to comprehend the total work required, and thus allows you to optimise at specific points in your pipeline. Striving to “treat efficiency as a primary evaluation criterion alongside accuracy” is what Schwartz et. al. call Green AI.

Mini case study #

GPT-n workshops case study #

Recently I gave some workshops to introduce participants to GPT-n text generators. The workshops usually involved an activity in which participants fine-tune a pre-trained model using texts of their choosing.

There were good pedagogic reasons to let everyone choose their own input text, e.g. from Gutenberg, for the fine tuning: it turns the activity into a more exciting experiment. It also made sense for me to do the activity myself, because (1) it's easy to forget details when you're describing something from memory and notes, and (2) I know from experience that certain fine-tuning texts will "work well," so we would have at least one interesting output to discuss at the end.

But in the short time available, I noticed participants often chose arbitrary and / or "obvious" input texts (e.g. Shakespeare, or an author they were primed to choose because they had been mentioned earlier in the workshop). Likewise, pushed for prep time, I realised I was tending to use the same input texts again and again. Furthermore, I would generate hundreds of pages of text, and then only browse the first few - and never use the rest for anything.

My new rule of thumb: if I am running a computationally intensive process for educational or demo purposes, do so in a way that doubles as research (in a loose sense of "research").

For the latest iteration of the workshop I have:

  • Explicitly included discussion of carbon costs.
  • Used a recording of myself doing the fine-tuning and text generation.
  • Created a shared folder of potential fine-tuning inputs which I am interested in for various reasons - participants could choose one of these or pick their own.
  • Built in time to discuss actual immediate use cases of text generation, and what questions we might ask of the output (and how many pages we needed to generate).

In some ways the workshop felt clunkier, and I had to cut some content which I liked. But it still felt worth it to include very basic sustainability considerations.

If I run similar workshops in the future I hope to:

  • Find out more about the actual carbon footprint of these processes.
  • Explore a format where small groups collaborate, running just one fine-tuning per group.
  • Explore choosing from a variety of already fine-tuned models, rather than running new fine-tunings.
  • Seek out others who may already want synthetic texts based on specific fine-tuning inputs, and offer to do this for them as part of the workshop.
  • Continue to think about proportionality, and if the carbon cost does seem too high, then replace the workshop with something else entirely.

Adapting existing infrastructures #

Large organisations such as Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) or other public sector organisations require complex IT infrastructure to satisfy their diverse stakeholder requirements. For example, a university will typically have a central IT service offered out across different academic departments but some departments will also run their own more specialised services. Service catalogues provide a way for organisations to describe what technologies and services they support and could be a good starting point to communicate their environmental footprints. This may then be used to raise awareness or feed into data management plans when describing the infrastructure requirements for a new research project. A simple colour-coded gradient scheme could be used to help categorise the technologies and services similar to the ones you see on electrical appliances (or other schemes).

As more organisations shift their infrastructure from always on Virtual Machines (VMs) to more on-demand compute services we should start to see benefits in energy consumption, especially in large organisations that have budgeted for VMs that might run with minimal use for periods of time. We will move to a model that is more elastic and can scale horizontally to accommodate changes in demand.

We are also seeing a shift towards using Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) which can provide in-memory caches of popular resources avoiding the requirement to do expensive transfers across backend systems. Understanding the computation or energy benefits from these caches would provide useful insight.

Within software development projects it is typical to see CI/CD pipelines being deployed. We need to raise awareness of the impacts of continually triggering what might be a resource intensive process.

Further reading #

Schwartz, Roy, Jesse Dodge, Noah A. Smith, and Oren Etzioni. ‘Green AI’. Communications of the ACM 63, no. 12 (17 November 2020): 54–63.

Shervin Minaee, 20 Popular Machine Learning Metrics. Towards Data Science, 28 Oct 2019. [Accessed 2022-04-06].