Arithmetic Workshop at Imperial

This week my research group had the pleasure of hosting Prof Miloš Ercegovac from UCLA, one of the giants of the field of computer arithmetic. Prof Ercegovac had come at my invitation to deliver a short three-day course on computer arithmetic to approx 40 delegates from Imperial College and elsewhere, including a significant delegation from UK industry.


I first encountered Miloš’s work when I was a PhD student reading around my topic, but I didn’t have the opportunity to make use of his work directly until 2014, when I published a paper with my former PhD student Kan Shi (now with Intel), demonstrating that a digit parallel form of Online Arithmetic can be used in the context of approximate computing, to provide an unexplored trade-off between clock frequency and arithmetic error. I also later developed an architecture based on online arithmetic for arbitrary precision with my BEng student Aaron Zhao (now at Cambridge).

The title of Miloš’s lectures was “An Enduring Pillar of Computer Arithmetic: Redundancy in Representation and its Uses in Algorithms and Implementations”.  I hope that in this brief blog post, I can provide you with an overview of the topics that were discussed at our workshop, aimed at a general technical reader. The best reference for most of the material, should you wish to dig further, is the book by Ercegovac and Lang.

Day 1 kicked off with a discussion of redundancy in representation (the idea that you can have more than one representation of a given number), its realisation in positional radix number systems, and the implications for addition. As a simple example, imagine working in decimal, but allowing your digits to range from -9 to 9 instead of 0 to 9 as usual. This is clearly redundant because, for example, 18 = 2\bar{2} where the bar over a digit indicates a negative digit. But it also has the remarkable property that addition can be performed without inducing carries, leading to the potential for very significant parallelism. I particularly enjoyed that Miloš was able to trace this idea back to the 1700s, in a paper by John Colson, published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, entitled “A Short Account of Negativo-affirmative Arithmetick”.

Day 2 covered Miloš’s Online Arithmetic, referred to earlier. As I tell my students: when adding or multiplying two numbers, if the two numbers are big, you expect a big result, right? So why not use that information – why wait until you’ve added all the partial products from least-significant digits before producing the most significant digit. Usually, we must wait because a carry from the least significant digits can throw out the most significant. Not so with online arithmetic – taking advantage of redundancy allows one to produce multiplication and addition (and other) results most-significant-digit-first.

Day 3, the final day of our workshop, ended with a discussion of high-radix division, explaining some interesting ways that performance can be squeezed out of division by performing the division in high radices.

I would recommend anyone interested in arithmetic to get hold of Ercegovac and Lang and explore these ideas in more depth. With the rise of custom and accelerator architectures, there hasn’t been a better time to begin to re-explore some of the assumptions underlying our arithmetic hardware. Inspired readers, feel free to contact me about PhD or postdoc opportunities in this area!


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