When are Digits Correct?

Often, we compute with iterative algorithms. Start with some value, often an initial guess to be refined, and keep iterating until some stopping criterion is met. If we actually think about what goes on in a modern digital computer when we execute these algorithms, we soon see that – often – the same digits end up being computed time and again. As we converge to a value, it’s reasonable to expect that most of the time the most significant digits become stable. But we still compute them, time and again at each iteration, wasting computational resource.

In general, in standard binary representations, this re-computation may not be avoidable – most-significant digits might be stable for 1000 iterations and then flip, e.g. from 0.99999 to 1.00000. As a child, I used to play with such iterations using my HP32S calculator – a gift from fred harris – it provided endless entertainment.

There is, however, a class of number representations in which these digit flips can be avoided: redundant number representations. These representations have a long history – indeed, as my friend and colleague Miloš Ercegovac has identified, they can be traced back as far as a 1727 publication in Phil. Trans. Royal Soc by John Colson FRS. Miloš developed these ideas to a mature state between the 1970s and today, in the guise of Online Arithmetic.

Together with my PhD students He Li (now research staff at Cambridge) and Ian McInerney and collaborator James Davis, I have recently done some work on methods to detect and establish exactly when digits become stable using such schemes and what the implications might be for hardware that makes use of this stability. In our recent IEEE Transactions on Computers paper, we adapt standard forward error analyses of stationary iterative methods to this setting. We mathematically derive some conditions that can be checked at run-time to determine when you don’t need to compute certain digits in any future iteration, and also present a toy hardware implementation taking advantage of this approach using a non-standard arithmetic processor design.

We hope that – in the future – only what needs to be computed will be computed.

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