How can we democratize machine learning on IoT devices?

Making tiny machine learning widely available on edge IoT devices could prove to be a major leap in smart sensing across industries. Below, we plot the technical milestones to making that happen as part of our ongoing research into TinyML as-a-service.

Realize the full potential of IoT
Feb 12, 2020
Hiroshi Doyu 

Senior Researcher IoT

Roberto Morabito 

Experienced Researcher IoT technologies

Category, topic & hashtags

TinyML, as a concept, concerns the running of ML inference on Ultra Low-Power (ULP ~1mW) microcontrollers found on IoT devices. Yet today, various challenges still limit the effective execution of TinyML in the embedded IoT world. As both a concept and community, it is still under development.

Here at Ericsson, the focus of our TinyML as-a-Service (TinyMLaaS) activity is to democratize TinyML, enabling manufacturers to start their AI businesses using TinyML, which runs on 8, 16 and 32 bit microcontrollers.

Our goal is to make the execution of ML tasks possible and easy in a specific class of devices. These devices are characterized by very constrained hardware and software resources such as sensor and actuator nodes based on these microcontrollers.

Below, we present how we can bind the “as-a-service” model to TinyML. We will provide a high-level technical overview of our concept and introduce the design requirements and building blocks which characterize this emerging paradigm.

This is the third instalment in our series on tiny machine learning (TinyML) as-a-service. In our earlier articles, we offer an introduction to TinyML as-a-service and explore the challenges of machine learning at the edge.

What is our approach for making TinyMLaaS possible?

We propose to build a higher-level abstraction of TinyML software that is as hardware and software agnostic as possible. Furthermore, we will do this in an "as a Service" fashion. Why? The advantages of using specialized hardware for ML must be balanced with the use of dedicated ML compilers that adapt a certain ML model to the targeted hardware platform. This hardware and associated compilers’ heterogeneity (i.e. application of various kinds of special hardware) generates additional fragmentation. It also offers poor flexibility against the possibility of easily switching hardware context due to the need to re-compile the ML inference model for the targeted device. ML compilers are very powerful tools and we don't want to disregard their important role in the ML ecosystem.

This software abstraction is the foundation of TinyMLaaS - a cloud or edge service designed to host a wide set of ML compilers. It is the job of these compilers to convert a specific ML inference model into the appropriate format for being executed in the served device.

We believe that creating an ecosystem around TinyML, based on our TinyMLaaS concept, is a way forward. Such an ecosystem would enable developers to seamlessly build and compile ML inference models regardless of the underlying hardware platform.

To tailor an ML inference model for running in a specific device, TinyMLaaS needs to gather some information about the device itself, such as CPU type, RAM and ROM size, available peripherals, underlying software, and the correct inference model to process.

The TinyMLaaS backend will select the most suitable ML compiler and generate the compiled ML inference module on the basis of the above parameters. The generated ML inference module is then downloaded and installed on the designated device.

In our work, communication with the end-devices is handled through the LightweightM2M (LwM2M) device management protocol. There are multiple reasons for choosing LwM2M in the context of IoT and embedded systems. To learn why, check out our earlier blog posts from 2017, 2015 and 2014.

TinyMLaaS relies on LwM2M also to benefit from Firmware-over-the-air (FOTA) and Software-over-the-air (SOTA) update capabilities. The integration between LwM2M and IPSO Objects is harnessed, with the aim of using a standardized model when end-devices and a TinyMLaaS instance exchange device characteristics information.

Expanding the TinyMLaaS ecosystem

The approach used in TinyMLaaS can be useful for enhancing ML interoperability between different devices from different manufacturers, allowing small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to easily join the game along with bigger firms. Our idea is to serve as many devices as possible and break the existing interoperability barrier between different AI chips and related compilers. In order to unlock this interoperability, there are three essential components which characterize TinyMLaaS: compiler plugin interface, orchestration protocol, and inference module format.

Figure 1: Standardizing three components for the TinyMLaaS ecosystem

Figure 1: Standardizing three components for the TinyMLaaS ecosystem

Supporting these three components represents the basic requirement for embedding a hardware platform to the TinyMLaaS ecosystem. By defining them, we also offer a foundation for each to work independently and then bind them together to enable AI business. In the figures below, we depict the purpose of each three components.

The first component, the compiler plugin interface (below), is the definition of parameters to pass and output format to return from the TinyMLaaS backend (ML compiler). TinyMLaaS is a kind of front-end to accept requests, and it could have multiple backends of ML compilers. A request is sent to an appropriate backend and it returns the output of compilation. As we are aiming to host multiple ML compilers from different vendors, it would be desirable to define a standard for such parameters rather than adapt the parameters to the device in use.

Figure 2: The purpose of the compiler plugin interface

Figure 2: The purpose of the compiler plugin interface

The second component, the orchestration protocol (below), is used to first get device capabilities and then install a generated image onto a device. This element enables explicit interactions between devices and TinyMLaaS on the basis of well-defined APIs. In this respect, LwM2M has the appropriate characteristics for taking advantage of a standardized protocol, particularly suitable for the embedded IoT context.

Figure 3: The purpose of the orchestration protocol via LwM2M

Figure 3: The purpose of the orchestration protocol via LwM2M

The third component, the inference module format (below), is needed at SOTA, which is a partial software update, to support multiple types of real time operating systems with a single format. This is basically the ML inference application itself as well as the "output" processed by the ML compiler. The output format of such an application is tailored by the ML compiler according to the underlying software and hardware characteristics of the device that is using it. The large number of heterogenous devices and the lack of a consistent inference format model means that this process remains fragmented. In this respect, we look forward for a step toward a process of standardizing the inference format model, so as to ensure an easier ML software portability between devices.

Figure 4: The purpose of the inference module format

Figure 4: The purpose of the inference module format

Mapping the lifecycle process of the TinyMLaaS ecosystem

In figure 5 (below), we depict how these interfaces are employed in a typical cloud-edge-device scenario. The blue arrows indicate how those components interact in this ecosystem.

Figure 5: Component interaction across the TinyMLaaS ecosystem

Figure 5: Component interaction across the TinyMLaaS ecosystem

From TinyMLaaS to MLCaaS

The principles used in TinyMLaaS can represent an important element in tackling the high heterogeneity which characterizes the ML ecosystem. As we explained in the first two articles of this series, there are ML frameworks and ML-optimized hardware showing up more frequently, targeting different execution environments (e.g. cloud, edge, IoT devices).

The possibility of relying on ML-based IoT systems, composed of heterogeneous components interacting between each other, is something highly desirable but equally difficult to achieve with the current solutions. TinyMLaaS aims to bridge the gap in this respect.

Furthermore, this concept can also be disjoined by the IoT and reformulated, similarly and on a higher level, as ML Compiler as-a-Service (MLCaaS). In fact, as long as a ML framework generates a standardized computational graph (i.e. through ONNX), the ML compiler can more easily generate the ML inference model software suitable for a targeted hardware.

This basically represents the rationale of our activity. We are working for building a service platform that can offer seamless migration of a ML application between, for example, cloud computing environments with GPU, edge computing with FPGA or IoT devices with constrained AI chip.


We hope that you enjoyed our series about TinyMLaaS.

The TinyML community has evolved a lot during the last year. Ecosystem players, like chip vendors, compiler companies, service providers etc. have an opportunity to both influence and accelerate the development of the ecosystem. Here at Ericsson, we very much encourage and invite this level of cross-industry collaboration.

Hiroshi Doyu is presenting a talk about "TinyML as-a-Service" at Linaro Connect, Budapest, Hungary at the end of March. Please drop by if you are interested or contact him on LinkedIn.

Learn more

Read our earlier blog posts where we offer an introduction to TinyML as-a-service and explore the challenges of machine learning at the edge.

Learn more about the future IoT ecosystem.

The Ericsson Blog

Like what you’re reading? Please sign up for email updates on your favorite topics.

Subscribe now

At the Ericsson Blog, we provide insight to make complex ideas on technology, innovation and business simple.