Evolving functions

Tue Aug 29 10:37:03 PDT 2017

Imagine functions that get better as they are used. What if functions could adapt themselves to different arguments?

As a simple example, consider statistical computation on an $n \times p$ matrix $X$, ie. we have $n$ $p$ dimensional observations. Suppose we want to call a function $f(X)$. There may be several possible efficient implementations of a function $f$. Which is most efficient may depend on the computer system and the values of $n$ and $p$.

Current concepts

Learning functions already exist; any function that caches results or intermediate computations will be faster when called with the same arguments the second time. A prominent and well executed example is R's matrix package, which caches matrix decompositions for subsequent use.

Another example from different languages is JIT compilation. A function is written in a general way, for example:

dotprod = function (x, y)
    sum(x * y)

With JIT compilation when dotprod() is first called with both x, y double precision floating point number then it will take time to compile a version of dotprod specialized to these argument types, and then it will call it on these arguments. When dotprod() is subsequently called with other floating point arguments the same precompiled version will be discovered and used again.

When to use

Let's be very clear about when this should be used. Parallelism introduces an overhead on the order of a ms, so there's no point timing operations that require less time than that.

Some of the implementation may rely on Sys.time(), which has a certain level of precision.

The instrumentation when put into place causes a small amount of overhead (exactly how much?) that will affect the functions being timed. This means that small timings will be unreliable.

No point in trying to go further with the precision.


autoparallel lets us improve functions using evolve(). The simplest way to use evolve() is to pass multiple implementations as arguments. Consider the following two implementations of linear regression which extract the ordinary least squares coefficients.

# Direct implementation of formula
ols_naive = function (X, y)
    if(ncol(X) == 2){
        X = X[, 2]
        mX = mean(X)
        my = mean(y)
        Xcentered = X - mX
        b1 = sum(Xcentered * (y - my)) / sum(Xcentered^2)
        b0 = my - b1 * mX
        c(b0, b1)
    } else {
        XtXinv = solve(t(X) %*% X)
        XtXinv %*% t(X) %*% y

ols_clever = function (X, y)
    XtX = crossprod(X)
    Xty = crossprod(X, y)
    solve(XtX, Xty)

Before timing we may not be sure which of these implementations are faster. Then we can pass both implementations into evolve() and let it figure it out for us.


ols = evolve(ols_naive, ols_clever)

ols() is a function with the same signature (or a superset of the signatures?) of ols_naive() and ols_clever().


A Statistical Problem

Every function evaluation produces an answer along with the accompanying time. Suppose we have a finite set of $I$ implementations and $D$ sizes of data which determine the actual computational complexity. Then we can model the wall time to run the function in a fully general way as:

$$ t = \mu(i, d) + \epsilon(i, d) $$

$\mu(i, d), i \in I, d \in D$ is the true mean time while $\epsilon(i, d)$ is a random variable.

The overarching goal is to choose an implementation $i \in I$ which minimizes the time required to solve a problem of size $d \in D$.

Looking back at the ols() example, $I$ = {ols_naive, ols_clever}, while $D$ could be anything, but suppose we are only interested in problems with $n \in { 100, 500 }$ and $p \in {1, 30}$.

This is an updating / online learning problem.


n = 100
p = 1
ones = rep(1, n)
X = matrix(c(ones, rnorm(n * p)), nrow = n)
y = rnorm(n)

beta_naive = ols_naive(X, y)
beta_clever = ols_clever(X, y)

max(abs(beta_naive - beta_clever))

microbenchmark(ols_naive(X, y), ols_clever(X, y), times = 10)

With these numbers the naive version is slightly better.

Builtin functions

Suppose one wants to do the same timing and predictions for a function in base R. Take crossprod(X) as an example, which computes the matrix $X^T X$. Let $X$ is an $n \times p$ matrix of real numbers. crossprod(X) can use the symmetry of the result, so it needs n p (p + 1) / 2 floating point operations.

# Include y to match the signature for crossprod()
crossprod_flops = function(x, y)
    n = nrow(x)
    p = ncol(x)
    data.frame(npp = n * p * (p + 1) / 2)

trace_timings(crossprod, metadata_func = crossprod_flops)

n = 100
p = 4
x = matrix(rnorm(n * p), nrow = n)

n = 200
p = 50
x = matrix(rnorm(n * p), nrow = n)

Design for Trace based timings

The metadata_func function captures the relevant metadata for an operation. To make a custom metadata_func functions, as with the crossprod_flops() above, it seems reasonable to match the signature of the function which is being timed. This could be verified. Then the design issue is how to access and use these variables from within the functions that are used in trace()? Note that these functions cannot have any parameters. Therefore we must discover the arguments from within the functions themselves.

If the formal parameters match then we can directly lift the arguments from the calling function. Some care is needed to respect lazy evaluation. Here are some considerations. In the following let f be the function and am() be the corresponding argument metadata function with the same signature as f.

f = function(a) ...
am = function(a) ...

f(x) is the same as f(a = x), so we can evaluate am(a). Similarly, f(g(x)) lets us evaluate am(a). Thinking more on this, we can just evaluate the default signature. One issue that may come up is finding the wrong values inside the intermediate closure. Another issue is where to evaluate the signature? Inside the body of the function where the tracing happens. metadata_func() does not exist there. We can put it there.

The more general case is a single function such as the default length_first_arg(), which must be capable of handling different argument signatures. First off we need to assume that there is at least one argument, since otherwise we can't make any predictions based on characteristics of the arguments.

For the trace based method, one way to implement length_first_arg() is as a function with zero parameters that reaches through to its parent. This approach won't work for the S3 methods currently using ... though. So maybe the best way is to rewrite it all to use the trace implementation, since that is more general. Then I don't have to have two implementations.


I could cache the functions and the models on the user's disk for reuse in new sessions. Duncan has suggested that we even cache them centrally, ie. the user program sends in metadata, system info, and possibly implementations to a central server.

Related ideas

Is there a way to "merge" functions? In the OLS case for least squares I give three implementations. Some may work better on special cases. Could we pull all of that logic into one function? That's somewhat what I'm doing here.

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makeParallel documentation built on May 2, 2019, 9:40 a.m.