On Thu, Aug 19, 2021 at 2:13 AM Jerry Morrison <jerry.morrison+numpy@gmail.com> wrote:

I'll put forth an expectation that after installing a specific set of libraries, the floating point results would be identical across platforms and into the future. Ideally developers could install library updates (for hardware compatibility, security fixes, or other reasons) and still get identical results.

That expectation is for reproducibility, not high accuracy. So it'd be fine to install different libraries [or maybe use those pip package options in brackets, whatever they do?] to trade accuracy for speed. Could any particular choice of accuracy still provide reproducible results across platforms and time?

While this would be nice, in practice bit-identical results for floating point NumPy functions across different operating systems and future time is going to be impractical to achieve.  IEEE-754 helps by specifying the result of basic floating point operations, but once you move into special math functions (like cos()) or other algorithms that can be implemented in several "mathematically equivalent" ways, bit-level stability basically becomes impossible without snapshotting your entire software stack.  Many of these special math functions are provided by the operating system, which generally do not make such guarantees.

Quick example: Suppose you want to implement sum() on a floating point array.  If you start at the beginning of the array and iterate to the end, adding each element to an accumulator, you will get one answer.  If you do mathematically equivalent pairwise summations (using a temporary array for storage), you will get a different, and probably more accurate answer.  Neither answer will (in general) be the same as summing those numbers together with infinite precision, then rounding to the closest floating point number at the end.  We could decide to make the specification for sum() also specify the algorithm for computing sum() to ensure we make the same round-off errors every time.  However, this kind of detailed specification might be harder to write for other functions, or might even lock the library into accuracy bugs that can't be fixed in the future.

I think the most pragmatic thing you can hope for is:
  • Bit-identical results with containers that snapshot everything, including the system math library.
  • Libraries that specify their accuracy levels when possible, and disclose when algorithm changes will affect the bit-identicalness of results.
On a meta-level, if analysis conclusions depend on getting bit-identical results from floating point operations, then you really want to use a higher precision float and/or an algorithm less sensitive to round-off error.  Floating point numbers are not real numbers.  :)