**Scott Gray, Alec Radford and Diederik P. Kingma **

OpenAI

[scott,alec,dpkingma]@openai.com

## Abstract

We’re releasing highly optimized GPU kernels for an underexplored class of neural network architectures: networks with block-sparse weights. The kernels allow for efﬁcient evaluation and differentiation of linear layers, including convolutional layers, with ﬂexibly conﬁgurable block-sparsity patterns in the weight matrix. We ﬁnd that depending on the sparsity, these kernels can run orders of magnitude faster than the best available alternatives such as cuBLAS. Using the kernels we improve upon the state-of-the-art in text sentiment analysis and generative modeling of text and images. By releasing our kernels in the open we aim to spur further advancement in model and algorithm design.

## 1 Introduction

Research in the ﬁeld of contemporary deep learning [LeCun et al., 2015] is largely constrained by the availability of efﬁcient GPU kernels for deﬁning, evaluating and differentiating various model architectures. Only a small number of types of linear operations currently have efﬁcient GPU implementations; threelinearoperationsthatcurrentlyenjoyefﬁcientGPUimplementationsaredense dot products, convolutional operations and (most recently) depth-wise operations. Such operations have two variables as inputs: one input is usually a layer of network activations (corresponding to the current minibatch of datapoints), and another input that is usually the set of learned weights for that layer. For dense linear operations, these weights are a dense matrix or a dense higher-dimensional tensor. Two dimensions of these weights correspond to the so-called feature dimensions, whose lengths equal the so-called widths of the input and output layers of the operations. Such dense linear operations do not scale well in the feature dimensions, since the number of weights is proportional to both the number of input features, and the number of output features. Linearly scaling up the number of input and output features, results in a quadratic increase in the total number of weights, and a quadratic increase in the computational cost.

Ideally, we would have efﬁcient operations that allow for sparsity in the two feature dimensions. With sparsity, we mean that the value of a subset of weights are speciﬁed to be exactly zero. If a weight is zero, then the linear operation associated with that weight can be skipped, since any value times zero equals zero. Therefore, the computational cost of sparse linear operations is only proportional to the number of non-zero weights. A problem of operations with weights with arbitrary sparsity, is that they cannot be efﬁciently implemented on contemporary GPUs. GPUs consist of thousands of computational cores that all operate in parallel. This restricts us to the set of operations that allow for a high degree of parallelizability, which does not include operations with arbitrary sparsity patterns.

However, we found that highly optimized block-sparse operations, with block sizes as small as 8 8, can still run efﬁciently on contemporary GPUs. See ﬁgure 1 which explains block-sparse connectivity. WeintroducehighlyoptimizedGPUimplementationsofvariousblock-sparseoperations. The operations come in roughly two ﬂavors: (1) block-sparse matrix multiplications, and (2) block-sparse convolutional operations. The kernels and their main documentation can be found on GitHub 1. Please refer to this GitHub page for more information on the API.

Block-sparsity unlocks various research directions (see section 6). One application we explore in experiments is the widening or deepening of neural networks, while increasing sparsity, such that the computational cost remains approximately equal as explained in ﬁgure 2. In experiments we have only scratched the surface of the applications of block-sparse linear operations; by releasing our kernels in the open, we aim to spur further advancement in model and algorithm design.

## 2 Capabilities

The two main components of this release are a block-sparse matrix multiplication kernel and a block-sparse convolution kernel. Both are wrapped in Tensorﬂow [Abadi et al., 2016] ops for easy use and the kernels are straightforward to integrate into other frameworks, such as PyTorch.

Both kernels support an arbitrary block size and are optimized for 8×8, 16×16, and 32×32 block sizes. The matrix multiplication kernel supports an arbitrary block layout which is speciﬁed via a masking matrix. In addition, the feature axis is conﬁgurable. The convolution kernel supports non-contiguous input/output feature blocks of any uniform or non-uniform size speciﬁed via a conﬁguration format (see API) though multiples of 32×32 perform best. Arbitrary dense spatial ﬁlter sizes are supported in addition to dilation, striding, padding, and edge biasing.

A variety of efﬁcient helper ops are included for common routines such as layer and batch normalization of activations, L2 normalization of weights, dropout, activation functions, and elementwise math.

Since sparse networks allow for much larger activation tensors than dense networks, operations tend to be bandwidth bound instead of compute bound on GPU hardware. Reduced precision formats lower bandwidth signiﬁcantly which helps alleviate this problem. To this end, the kernels support fp16 in addition to fp32 with additional compact formats such as bﬂoat16 in active development.

## 3 Benchmarks

**3.1 Performance (GFLOPS) compared to cuBLAS and cuSPARSE kernels**

In order to verify the efficiency of our proposed kernels, we compare against three baseline techniques for linear layers with block-sparse weights. For all cases, we tested on a NVIDIA Pascal Titan X GPU, with minibatch size 32 and block size 3232.

The ﬁrst baseline technique is the naïve use of cuBLAS kernels with sparse weight matrices. Since this technique does not ’skip’ blocks of weights whose values are 0, the computational complexity is proportionaltothetotalnumberofentriesinthematrix,notthenumberofnon-zeroblocks. Therefore, this technique performs a lot of unnecessary operations. See ﬁgure 3 for the relative speed of our kernel, compared to this technique. For higher degrees of sparsity, we see as expected a speedup factor close to 1/1 s/100, where s is the sparsity percentage.

We also compared against baselines of (1) block-sparse matrix multiplication through performing a sequence of small per-block matrix multiplications with cuBLAS, and (2) block-sparse matrix mult-plication using the cuSPARSE library. Unlike the previous baseline, the computational complexities of these methods are only proportional to the number of non-zero blocks. Still, in our experiments, these baselines faired worse than the previously baseline of naïve usage of cuBLAS; the number of GFLOPS did not not exceed about 50, regardless of the degree of sparsity. Our kernels typically performed one or two orders of magnitude faster in terms of GFLOPS.

**3.2 Effect of block size, features axis and hidden state size**

We benchmarked the performance of our kernels, in terms of GFLOPS, as a function block size, features axis and hidden state size; see ﬁgure 4. In each experiment, we kept the total number of parameters ﬁxed. This experiment was performed on a NVIDIA P100 GPU, with a small-world LSTM with about 3 million parameters, with a hidden state size ranging from 1792 to 10752, corresponding to 0% to 97% sparsity. The evaluation was done with a minibatch size of 64; this

size often performs best due to reduced cache dilution compared to larger minibatch sizes. The connectivity pattern is generated with the Watts-Strogatz algorithm, with 20% random long range connections, but performance with Barabási-Albert connectivity is close.

The operation with feature_axis=1 corresponds to an assembly-optimized kernel, and is essentially the same kernel as the openai-gemm kernel, now also used in cuBLAS for tile size 32×32. This kernel clearly outperforms the kernel for feature axis 0, but does not work for Kepler and Volta GPUs.

Figure 4a shows performance of the fprop/bprop operation, which compute forward activations, and compute gradients w.r.t. the forward activations respectively. Since bprop is the transpose of the fprop operation, and transposes can be done in-place, the two operations have identical performance. Note that, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, in this experiment a higher degree of sparsity generally leads to better performance in GFLOPS. This is due to the higher parallelizability of the accumulation operation in case of larger hidden state sizes.

In ﬁgures 4b and 4c we benchmarked the update operation, which computes derivatives w.r.t. the block-sparse weights. Note that if a weight matrix is re-used multiple times in a computational graph, such as in an LSTM, this operation can be grouped, i.e. performed in parallel across multiple timesteps. Comparing ﬁgure 4b with 4c, it is clear that the grouping leads to substantial improvement in GFLOPS. Grouped update operations are easy to perform, since the kernels take lists of (activation, gradients) as input, avoiding the requirement of pre-concatenation.

## 4 Experiments

Our new kernels open up a large space of new possibilities for learning algorithms and neural network

architectures. In this section ,we experiment with some relatively simple block-sparse patterns with

fixed sparse topology. Note that the kernels in principle allow for much more exotic methods, such as

a learned sparsity structure, and more exotic models; we leave this for future work.

**4.1 LSTMs with Deep Updates**

The block-sparse kernels allow us to efﬁciently implement LSTMs with block-sparsity connectivity. With sparse connectivity, we mean that the linear operations in a LSTM are replaced by block-sparse linearoperations. Sparseconnectivityallowsusto,forexample,widenthenetworkwithoutincreasing the number of parameters.

One appealing property of LSTMs with densely connected recurrent connections is that the value of each activation (neuron) at timestep t is a function of all hidden activations, and all inputs, at timestep (t 1). In other words, information fully mixes between timesteps. This is not true for a LSTM with naïve block-sparse connectivity: since not all neurons are directly connected, information would not fully mix between timesteps. A similar observation was made in [Wen et al., 2017] and motivated their structured sparsity approach.

We choose to tackle this problem with the introduction of a sparse multi-layer network within each LSTM cell; see ﬁgure 5 for an illustration, and algorithm 1 in the appendix for pseudo-code of this LSTM with deep updates. Given the right block-sparse connectivity, such networks can fully mix within a relatively small number of layers when combined with a small-world connectivity, as we will explain in section4.2. The LSTM architecture builds on the multiplicative LSTM (mSLTM) architecture proposed in [Krause et al., 2016], and utilizes layer normalization [Ba et al., 2016] for improved efﬁciency.

Adding internal depth is a good way to increase parameter efﬁciency, even in the dense case; see ﬁgure 8 in the appendix. Performance seems to saturate after about 4 internal steps.

**4.2 Small-World Networks**

In the choice of sparse connectivity, we take inspiration from the ﬁeld of small-world networks, as we will now explain. A network is deﬁned to be a small-world network [Watts, 1999] if the following two properties hold.

1. The clustering coefﬁcient is not small. The clustering coefﬁcient is a measure of locality of connectivity, and is high when the graph contains many cliques or near-cliques: subnet-works that are almost fully interconnected. Note that RNNs constructed with block-sparse connectivity automatically have this property.

2. The average path length L between nodes (neurons) scales only logarithmically with the total number of nodes/neurons N, i.e. L / logN. The path length between nodes equals the length of the shortest path between these nodes. A short average path length leads to rapid mixing of information.

A well-known example of small-world networks is the human social network [Watts, 2004]: our friends, family and acquaintances often also know eachother (high clustering), but we are also on average only about ’six handshakes away’ from a random other person on earth. Another example is the human brain, whose anatomical and functional networks often also exhibit small-worldness [Bassett and Bullmore, 2006].

Some algorithms for generating graphs with small-world properties are:

1. Random block-sparse connectivity. Note that a plain block-sparse structure with non-trivially sized blocks, automatically has some degree of clustering. This results in the simplest type of small-world RNN.

2. The Watts-Strogatz (WS) model [Watts and Strogatz, 1998]. The algorithm that construct WSgraphsstartsoutwithaK-dimensionalringlatticewithadensepurelylocalconnectivity; every node is connected to every other node within a certain distance within the lattice. Then a random subset (k%) of all connections is replaced with a random connection. The other (100 k)% local connections are retained.

3. The Barabási-Albert (BA) model [Barabási and Albert, 1999]. The algorithm that constructs such graphs begins with an initial densely connected network with m0 nodes. Then, new nodes are added on at a time, each new node connected to m m0 existing nodes, where the probability that a new node connects to a particular existing node i is proportional to the degree (the number of connections) of that existing node. This leads to a power law degree distribution, with a very small number of nodes with a very large degree of connectivity (’the rich get richer’).

Our block-sparse GPU kernels allow us to implement models with WS and BA connectivity on the block level. See ﬁgure 6 for an illustration of the types of connectivity.

Neural networks with small-world connectivity allow us to train wider networks without incurring a quadratic increase in the number of parameters. This let us scale RNNs to very large states. Since the average path length between neurons scales only as the logarithm of the total number of neurons, even very large networks are fully connected within a short number of timesteps. As a result, information has the ability to mix rapidly within the network.

**4.3 Small-World LSTMs**

We trained LSTMs with deep updates and small-world block-sparse connectivity, which we refer to as Small-World LSTMs. For a large scale experiment we follow the setup of [Radford et al., 2017] and train byte-level generative models on the Amazon Reviews corpus [McAuley et al., 2015]. Due to more efﬁcient implementations, models are trained for four epochs instead of only one. Batch size is also increased by 4x resulting in an equivalent amount of total updates. As in other experiments, we train models with nearly equivalent parameter counts and the same hyper-parameters, comparing dense weight matrices with a block-sparse variant. A dense model with a state size of 3168 is trained. The sparse model uses a Barabási-Albert connectivity pattern with an effective sparsity of ~97% and a state size of 18432. The dense model reaches 1.058 bits per byte – already a signiﬁcant improvement over the 1.12 bits per byte previously reported on this dataset. The sparse model improves this further, reaching 1.048 bits per byte.

**4.4 Binary Sentiment Representation Learning**

Inadditiontothegenerativeresultsabove,wealsocomparetheusefulnessofthesemodelsforthetask of binary sentiment classiﬁcation in ﬁgure 7. We follow the semi-supervised methodology established by [Kiros et al., 2015] which trains a task-speciﬁc supervised linear model on top of a more general purpose unsupervised representation. Due in part to the much higher feature dimensionality of the sparse model increasing the effective capacity of the linear model, it outperforms the dense model on all sentiment datasets. Of particular note, our sparse model improves the state of the art on the document level IMDB dataset from 5:91% error [Miyato et al., 2016] to 5:01%. This is a promising improvement compared to [Radford et al., 2017] which performed best only on shorter sentence level datasets.

**4.5 Block-Sparse Convolutional Networks**

Finally, we tested whether replacement of dense (regular) convolutional kernels with block-sparse kernels improves results in a generative modeling benchmark. In order to maximize fairness of comparison, we took a pre-existing implementation of a SOTA model, and kept all hyper-parameters (including those for optimization) unchanged, while sparsifying and deepening the model such that the total number of parameters is approximately unchanged. Specifically, we took the openly available implementation of the PixelCNN++[Salimansetal.,2017] generative model, and replaced the regular convolutions with block-sparse convolution with a block-diagonal structure. This is also known as grouped convolution [Zhang et al., 2017, Xie et al., 2016]. Similar to [Zhang et al., 2017], we added a shufﬂe operator after every block-sparse convolution. In our case, shufﬂing has no additional computational or memory cost, since it can be merged with the convolution operation, simply by doing shufﬂing of the sparsity structure.

We found that increasing the depth of each stage of the model by a factor 2 or 4, while increasing the sparsity so as to keep the total number of parameters approximately constant, leads to increasingly better performance in terms of the bits per dimension (bpd). With an increase of the depth by a factor 4, this resulted in 2.90 bpd, which is (to the best of our knowledge) the best reported number in the literature so far.

These results are consistent with ﬁndings by [Zhang et al., 2017] and [Xie et al., 2016], who found that similarly grouped convolution led to improvements in classiﬁcation error in supervised tasks. For extensive experimental evidence that block-sparse convolutions can signiﬁcantly improve results, we refer to these previous publications.

## 5 Related Work

There is extensive evidence in the literature that architectures with block-sparse linear operations can substantially improve results.

In [Xie et al., 2016], for example, a novel convolutional network architecture called ResNeXt was proposed using block-sparse convolutions, improving upon the state-of-the-art. Later, the ShufﬂeNet [Zhang et al., 2017] used block-sparse convolutions as well, this time in combination with a shufﬂe operation, like we did in our convolutional experiments. These architecture can potentially greatly beneﬁt from efﬁcient block-sparse GPU kernels.

Depthwise separable convolutions [Simonyan and Zisserman, 2014] can be viewed as block-sparse convolutions with a block-diagonal connectivity matrix, and block size 1. Depthwise separable convolutions have been used to advance the state of the art in image classiﬁcation in various pub-lications, starting in [Simonyan and Zisserman, 2014], later in the Xception [Chollet, 2016] and MobileNet [Howard et al., 2017] architectures.

One of our motivations for block-sparsity in RNNs; larger state sizes without signiﬁcantly increased computational or parameter costs, has been successfully addressed in numerous ways by other approaches. The projection LSTM of [Sak et al., 2014] allows for more efﬁcient usage of high dimensional states by reducing the number of parameters and computation in the hidden to hidden transition of an LSTM and has been scaled up to achieve state of the art results in large scale language modeling [Jozefowiczetal.,2016]. Thisworkhasbeenfurtherimprovedby [KuchaievandGinsburg, 2017] who explore additional factorization methods for LSTMs.

In contrast to our small-world LSTM approach which trains with a ﬁxed block-level sparsity pattern, more ﬂexible methods which learn structured sparsity in RNNs have been explored. Group lasso regularization [Yuan and Lin, 2006] is a popular technique which by appropriate deﬁnition of a group encourages structured sparsity. Closely related to our work, [Narang et al., 2017] used carefully scheduled thresholding and group lasso on blocks of weight matrices to learn block-sparse RNNs. [Wen et al., 2017] achieved unit level pruning via group lasso regularization of “Intrinsic Sparse Structure weight groups” – which correspond to the rows and columns of LSTM weight matrices for a speciﬁc unit.

Wearefarfromtheﬁrsttoapplyinternalstepsinarecurrentneuralnetwork. In[Zillyetal.,2016]and [Graves, 2016], for example, RNNs were trained with multiple internal steps per external timestep.

## 6 Research Directions

There remain a large number of unexplored research directions and potential applications of the block-sparse kernels. Here we list some open questions and suggestions for future research.

Often, a large percentage of the weights in neural networks can be pruned after training has ﬁnished, as shown by various recent work summarized in [Cheng et al., 2017]. Typically these results could not be translated into wall-clock speedups, since there was an absence of GPU kernels that could leverage sparsity. How much wall-clock time speed-up is possible at inference time, when using block-wise pruning of weights, together with block-sparse kernels?

In biological brains, the sparse structure of the network is partially determined during development, in addition to connection strengths. Can we do something similar in artiﬁcial neural networks, where we use gradients to not only learn the connection weights, but also the optimal sparsity structure? A recent paper proposed a method for learning block-sparse recurrent neural networks [Narang et al., 2017], and we recently proposed an algorithm for L0 regularization in neural networks [Louizos et al., 2017], which can be used towards this end.

We trained LSTMs with tens of thousands of hidden units, leading to better models of text. More generally, sparse layers make it possible to train models with huge weight matrices but the same number of parameters and the same computational cost as their smaller dense counterparts. What are application domains where this will make the most difference to performance?

## 7 Conclusion

We released highly optimized GPU kernels for gradient-based learning and inference in neural networks with block-sparse weights. In benchmarking experiments, we found that our GPU kernels indeed work much more efﬁciently than alternative kernels that are not optimized for block-sparse weights. We use the kernels to implement small-world LSTMs, which allow us to scale up to much wider states than typically used in LSTMs. We compared the representations (learned generatively on Amazon reviews data) of a dense network [Radford et al., 2017] with the wider and sparse variant, in terms of their usefulness for classifying sentiment. We found that the wider state indeed helped identify sentiment, leading to state-of-the-art results on various sentiment classiﬁcation benchmarks. The bits-per-character results on the Amazon reviews data set are also the best reported in the literature so far. We also saw improvements in the bits-per-dimension performance in generative modeling of CIFAR-10, when using sparse layers. Much is left to be explored in the space of block-sparse neural networks, and we have listed some potentially fruitful directions for future research.

Acknowledgments. We would like to thank Nvidia Corporation for their generous gift of a DGX-1 GPU machine, which was crucial for training our large scale block-sparse LSTMs. We would also like to thank Jack Clark, Jonas Schneider, Greg Brockman, Ilya Sutskever and Erich Elsen for their help leading up to this release.

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