Modeling immensely complex natural phenomena such as how subatomic particles interact or how atmospheric haze affects climate can take many hours on even the fastest supercomputers. Emulators, algorithms that quickly approximate these detailed simulations, offer a shortcut. Now, work posted online shows how artificial intelligence (AI) can easily produce accurate emulators that can accelerate simulations across all of science by billions of times.
“This is a big deal,” says Donald Lucas, who runs climate simulations at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and was not involved in the work. He says the new system automatically creates emulators that work better and faster than those his team designs and trains, usually by hand. The new emulators could be used to improve the models they mimic and help scientists make the best of their time at experimental facilities. If the work stands up to peer review, Lucas says, “It would change things in a big way.”
creating training data for them requires running the full simulation many times—the very thing the emulator is meant to avoid.
with a technique called neural architecture search, the most data-efficient wiring pattern for a given task can be identified.
The technique, called Deep Emulator Network Search (DENSE), relies on a general neural architecture search co-developed by Melody Guan, a computer scientist at Stanford University. It randomly inserts layers of computation between the networks’ input and output, and tests and trains the resulting wiring with the limited data. If an added layer enhances performance, it’s more likely to be included in future variations. Repeating the process improves the emulator.
The researchers used DENSE to develop emulators for 10 simulations—in physics, astronomy, geology, and climate science. One simulation, for example, models the way soot and other atmospheric aerosols reflect and absorb sunlight, affecting the global climate. It can take a thousand of computer-hours to run, so Duncan Watson-Parris, an atmospheric physicist at Oxford and study co-author, sometimes uses a machine learning emulator. But, he says, it’s tricky to set up, and it can’t produce high-resolution outputs, no matter how many data you give it.
The emulators that DENSE created, in contrast, excelled despite the lack of data. When they were turbocharged with specialized graphical processing chips, they were between about 100,000 and 2 billion times faster than their simulations. That speedup isn’t unusual for an emulator, but these were highly accurate: In one comparison, an astronomy emulator’s results were more than 99.9% identical to the results of the full simulation, and across the 10 simulations the neural network emulators were far better than conventional ones. Kasim says he thought DENSE would need tens of thousands of training examples per simulation to achieve these levels of accuracy. In most cases, it used a few thousand, and in the aerosol case only a few dozen.