Approximating Circuits

Next week, Ilaria Scarabottolo, currently a visiting research student in my research group at Imperial, will present her paper “Partition and Propagate” at DAC 2019 in Las Vegas. In this post, I will provide a brief preview of her work (joint with Giovanni Ansaloni and Laura Pozzi from Lugano and me.)

I’ve been interested in approximation, and how it can be used to save resources, ever since my PhD 20 years ago, where I coined the term “lossy synthesis” to mean the synthesis of a circuit / program where error can be judiciously introduced in order to effect an improvement in performance or silicon area. Recently, this area of research has become known as “approximate computing“, and a bewildering number of ways of approximating behaviour – at the circuit and software level – have been introduced.

Some of the existing approaches for approximate circuit synthesis are point solutions for particular IP cores (e.g. our approximate multiplier work) or involve moving beyond standard digital design methodologies (e.g. our overclocking work.) However, a few pieces of work develop a systematic method for arbitrary circuits, and Ilaria’s work falls into this category.

Essentially, she studies that class of approximation that can be induced solely by removing chunks of a logic circuit, replacing dangling nets with constant values – a technique my co-authors referred to as Circuit Carving in their DATE 2018 paper.

Our DAC paper presents a methodology for bounding the error that can be induced by performing such an operation. Such error can be bounded by exhaustive simulation or SAT, but not for large circuits with many inputs due to scalability concerns. On the other hand, coarse bounds for the error can be derived very quickly. Ilaria’s work neatly explores the space between these two extremes, allowing analysis execution time to be traded for bound quality in a natural way.

Approximation’s time has definitely come, with acceptance in the current era often driven by machine-learning applications, as I explore in a previous blog post. Ilaria’s paper is an interesting and general approach to the circuit-level problem.


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