AlphaDev discovers faster sorting algorithms that will transforms the foundations of computing

AlphaDev - introducing faster sorting algorithms that will transform the foundations of computing. In our paper published today in Nature, we introduce AlphaDev, an artificial intelligence (AI) system that uses reinforcement learning to discover enhanced computer science algorithms

Jun 20, 2023 - 09:27
Feb 15, 2024 - 20:29
AlphaDev discovers faster sorting algorithms that will transforms the foundations of computing
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Digital society is driving increasing demand for computation, and energy use. For the last five decades, we relied on improvements in hardware to keep pace. But as microchips approach their physical limits, it’s critical to improve the code that runs on them to make computing more powerful and sustainable. This is especially important for the algorithms that make up the code running trillions of times a day. 

In our paper published today in Nature, we introduce AlphaDev, an artificial intelligence (AI) system that uses reinforcement learning to discover enhanced computer science algorithms – surpassing those honed by scientists and engineers over decades. 

AlphaDev uncovered a faster algorithm for sorting, a method for ordering data. Billions of people use these algorithms everyday without realising it. They underpin everything from ranking online search results and social posts to how data is processed on computers and phones. Generating better algorithms using AI will transform how we program computers and impact all aspects of our increasingly digital society. 

By open sourcing our new sorting algorithms in the main C++ library, millions of developers and companies around the world now use it on AI applications across industries from cloud computing and online shopping to supply chain management. This is the first change to this part of the sorting library in over a decade and the first time an algorithm designed through reinforcement learning has been added to this library. We see this as an important stepping stone for using AI to optimise the world’s code, one algorithm at a time. 

What is sorting?

Sorting is a method of organising a number of items in a particular order. Examples include alphabetising three letters, arranging five numbers from biggest to smallest, or ordering a database of millions of records. 

This method has evolved throughout history. One of the earliest examples dates back to the second and third century when scholars alphabetised thousands of books by hand on the shelves of the Great Library of Alexandria. Following the industrial revolution, came the invention of machines that could help with sorting – tabulation machines stored information on punch cards which were used to collect the 1890 census results in the United States. 

And with the rise of commercial computers in the 1950s, we saw the development of the earliest computer science algorithms for sorting. Today, there are many different sorting techniques and algorithms which are used in codebases around the world to organise massive amounts of data online. 

Illustration of what a sorting algorithm does. A series of unsorted numbers is input into the algorithm and sorted numbers are output.

Contemporary algorithms took computer scientists and programmers decades of research to develop. They’re so efficient that making further improvements is a major challenge, akin to trying to find a new way to save electricity or a more efficient mathematical approach. These algorithms are also a cornerstone of computer science, taught in introductory computer science classes at universities. 

Searching for new algorithms

AlphaDev uncovered faster algorithms by starting from scratch rather than refining existing algorithms, and began looking where most humans don’t: the computer’s assembly instructions. 

Assembly instructions are used to create binary code for computers to put into action. While developers write in coding languages like C++, known as high-level languages, this must be translated into ‘low-level’ assembly instructions for computers to understand. 

We believe many improvements exist at this lower level that may be difficult to discover in a higher-level coding language. Computer storage and operations are more flexible at this level, which means there are significantly more potential improvements that could have a larger impact on speed and energy usage.

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