Compute Funds and Pre-trained Models

The US National AI Research Resource should provide structured access to models, not just data and compute.

Markus Anderljung, Lennart Heim, and Toby Shevlane

This post, authored by Markus Anderljung, Lennart Heim, and Toby Shevlane, argues that a newly proposed US government institution has an opportunity to support “structured access” to large AI models. GovAI research blog posts represent the views of their authors, rather than the views of the organization.

Compute funds and pre-trained models

One of the key trends in AI research over the last decade is its growing need for computational resources. Since 2012, the compute required to train state-of-the-art (SOTA) AI models has been doubling roughly every six months. Private AI labs are producing an increasing share of these high-compute SOTA AI models, leading many to worry about a growing compute divide between academia and the private sector. Partly in response to these concerns, there have been calls for the creation of a National AI Research Resource (NAIRR). The NAIRR would help provide academic researchers with access to compute, by either operating its own compute clusters or distributing credits that can be used to buy compute from other providers. It would also further support academic researchers by granting them access to data, including certain government-held datasets. Congress has now tasked the National Science Foundation with setting up a National AI Research Resource Task Force, which is due to deliver an interim report on the potential design of the NAIRR in May 2022.

We argue that for the NAIRR to meet its goal of supporting non-commercial AI research, its design must take into account what we predict will be another closely related trend in AI R&D: an increasing reliance on large pre-trained models, accessed through application programming interfaces (APIs). Large pre-trained models are AI models that require vast amounts of compute to create and that can often be adapted for a wide array of applications. The most widely applicable of these pre-trained models have recently been called foundation models, because they can serve as a “foundation” for the development of many other models. Due to commercial considerations and concerns about misuse, we predict that private actors will become increasingly hesitant to allow others to download copies of these models. We instead expect these models to be accessible primarily through APIs, which allow people to use or study models that are hosted by other actors. While academic researchers need access to compute and large datasets, we argue that they will also increasingly require API access to large pre-trained models. (Others have made similar claims.) The NAIRR could facilitate such access by setting up infrastructure for hosting and accessing large pre-trained models and inviting developers of large pre-trained models (across academia, industry, and government) to make their models available through the system. At the same time, they could allow academics to use NAIRR compute resources or credits to work with these models. 

The NAIRR has an opportunity, here, to ensure that academic researchers will be able to learn from and build upon some of the world’s most advanced AI models. Importantly, by introducing an API, the NAIRR could provide structured access to the pre-trained models so as to reduce any risks they might pose, while still ensuring easy access for research use. API access can allow outside researchers to understand and audit these models, for instance identifying security vulnerabilities or biases, without also making it easy for others to repurpose and misuse them.  

Concretely, we recommend that the NAIRR:

  1. provides infrastructure that enables API-based research on large pre-trained models and guards against misuse;

  2. allows researchers to use their NAIRR compute budget to do research on models accessed through an API; and

  3. explores ways to incentivize technology companies, academic researchers, and government agencies to provide structured access to large pre-trained models through the API. 

Signs of a trend

We predict that an increasing portion of important AI research and development will make use of large pre-trained models that are accessible only through APIs. In this paradigm, pre-trained models would play a central role in the AI ecosystem. A large portion of SOTA models would be developed by fine-tuning and otherwise adapting these models to particular tasks. Commercial considerations and misuse concerns would also frequently prevent developers from granting others access to their pre-trained models, except through APIs. Though we are still far from being in this paradigm, there are some early indications of a trend.

Particularly in the domain of natural language processing, academic research is beginning to build upon pre-trained models such as T5, BERT, and GPT-3. At one of the leading natural language processing conferences in 2021, EMNLP, a number of papers were published that investigated and evaluated existing pre-trained models. Some of the most relevant models are accessible only or primarily through APIs. The OpenAI API for GPT-3, announced in June 2020, has been used in dozens of research papers, for example investigating the model’s bias, its capabilities, and its potential to accelerate AI research by automating data annotation. Furthermore, Hugging Face’s API interface has been used to investigate COVID-19 misinformation and to design a Turing test benchmark for language models.

At the same time, in the commercial domain, applications of AI increasingly rely on pre-trained models that are accessed through APIs. Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, and other cloud providers now offer their customers access to pre-trained AI systems for visual recognition, natural language processing (NLP), speech-to-text, and more. OpenAI reported that its API for its pre-trained language model GPT-3 generated an average of 4.5 billion words per day as of March 2021, primarily for commercial applications.

Five underlying factors in the AI field explain why we might expect a trend towards academic research that relies on large pre-trained models that are only accessible through APIs:

  • Training SOTA models from scratch requires large amounts of compute, precluding access for actors with smaller budgets. For instance, PaLM – a new SOTA NLP model from Google Research – is estimated to have cost between $9 and $17M to train. The training compute cost of developing the next SOTA NLP model will likely be even greater.

  • In comparison, conducting research on pre-trained models typically requires small compute budgets. For instance, we estimate that a recent paper investigating anti-muslim bias in GPT-3 likely required less than $100 of compute. Developing new SOTA models by fine-tuning or otherwise adapting “foundation models” will also typically be dramatically cheaper than developing these models from scratch.

  • The developers of large pre-trained models are likely to have strong incentives not to distribute these models to others, as this would make it both more difficult to monetize the models and more difficult to prevent misuse.

  • Given the right infrastructure, it is significantly easier for researchers to use a pre-trained model that is accessed through an API than it is for them to implement the model themselves. Implementing large models, even for research purposes, can require significant engineering talent, expertise, and computing infrastructure. Academics and students often lack these resources.

  • Academics may increasingly aim their research at understanding and scrutinizing models, as this is important scientific work and plays to academia’s comparative advantage. 

We discuss these factors in detail below, in an appendix to this post.

How the NAIRR could provide access to pre-trained models

We offer a sketch of how the NAIRR could provide access to pre-trained models in addition to data and compute, illustrated in the figure below. First, it would create a platform for hosting and accessing pre-trained models via an API. The platform should be flexible enough to allow researchers to run a wide range of experiments on a range of models. It should be capable of supporting fine-tuning, interpretability research, and easy comparison of outputs from multiple models. The API should allow researchers to interface with both models hosted by the NAIRR itself and models hosted by other developers, who may often prefer to retain greater control over their models. 

Second, researchers would be allowed to use their NAIRR compute budgets to run inferences on the models. We recommend that researchers be allowed to use their budgets for this purpose even if the model is hosted by an organization other than the NAIRR. 

An illustration of how the NAIRR could provide API access to large pre-trained models.

The biggest challenge will likely be securing access to pre-trained models from developers across industry, academia, and government. In some cases, developers might be motivated to provide access by a desire to contribute to scientific progress, the prospect of external actors finding issues and ways to improve the model, or a belief that it might improve the organization’s reputation. The NAIRR could also create an expectation that models trained using NAIRR compute should be accessible through the platform. Access to particularly high-stakes government models in need of outside scrutiny could also potentially be mandated. Additionally, the NAIRR could consider incentivizing government agencies to provide API access to some of their more impactful models in exchange for access to compute resources or data (similar to a Stanford HAI proposal regarding data access).

Encouraging private actors to make their models accessible through the platform may be especially difficult. In some cases, companies may provide model access as a means to build trust with their consumers. They may recognize that the public will be far more trusting of claims concerning the safety, fairness, or positive impacts of their AI systems if these claims are vetted by outside researchers. For example, Facebook and Twitter have recently created APIs that allow outside researchers to scrutinize company data in a privacy-preserving manner. Further, the NAIRR could consider offering compensation to developers for making their models available via the API. Developers may also be particularly concerned about risks to intellectual property, something that can be assuaged by the NAIRR upholding high cybersecurity standards.

Crucially, the API should also be designed to thwart model misuse, while still ensuring easy access for research use. Multi-purpose models trained with NAIRR resources could be used maliciously, for instance by criminals, propagators of misinformation, or autocratic governments around the world. Large language models could, for example, significantly reduce the cost of large-scale misinformation campaigns. The NAIRR should take measures to avoid models trained with publicly funded compute being put to such uses. Misuse could be reduced by introducing a tiered access approach, as suggested in the Stanford HAI report for datasets hosted on the NAIRR. For instance, researchers might get easy access to most models but need to apply for access to models with high misuse potential. Further restrictions could then be placed on the queries or modifications that researchers are allowed to make to certain models. In addition, API usage should be monitored for suspicious activity (e.g. the generation of large amounts of political content). 

Helping academic researchers share their models

An appropriately designed API could also solve a challenge the NAIRR will face as it provides compute and data for the training of large-scale models: academic researchers will likely want to share and build on models developed with NAIRR resources. At the same time, open-sourcing the models may come with the risk of misuse in some cases. By building an API and agreeing to host models itself, the NAIRR can address this problem: it can make it easy for researchers to share their models in a way that is responsive to misuse concerns. 

Academics are significantly more likely to voluntarily make their models available via the API than private developers of SOTA models with a profit motive. As such, the NAIRR could start by focusing on providing infrastructure for academic researchers to share their models with each other, thereby building a proof-of-concept, and later introducing additional measures to secure access to models produced in industry and across government.


By building API infrastructure to support access to large pre-trained models, the NAIRR could produce a number of benefits. First, it could help academics to scrutinize and understand the most capable and socially impactful AI models. Second, it could cost-effectively grant researchers and students the ability to work on frontier models. Third, it could help researchers to share and build upon each other’s models while also avoiding risks of misuse. Concretely, we recommend that the NAIRR:

  1. provides infrastructure that enables API-based research on large pre-trained models and guards against misuse;

  2. allows researchers to use their NAIRR compute budget to do research on models accessed through an API; and

  3. explores ways to incentivize technology companies, academic researchers, and government agencies to provide structured access to large pre-trained models through the API. 

Appendix: Five factors underlying our prediction that pre-trained models accessed via APIs will become increasingly central to academic AI research 

Training SOTA models requires large amounts of compute

Training a SOTA model often requires large amounts of computational resources. Since 2012, the computational resources for training SOTA models have been doubling every 5.7 months

Training compute required for the final training run of state-of-the-art (SOTA) AI models from 2010 to 2021, when training compute doubled every 5.7 months. Data from a 2022 study led by Jaime Sevilla. It does not include data on the latest SOTA NLP model: PaLM.

The final training run of AlphaGo Zero in 2017 is estimated to have cost $35M. GPT-3, a SOTA NLP model developed in 2020 that is accessible via an API, has been estimated to have cost around $4.6M to train.2 Gopher – a recent frontier NLP model developed in 2021 by DeepMind – already doubled the compute requirements, costing around $9.2M. PaLM, a new SOTA NLP model from Google Research, is estimated to have cost between $9 and $17M to train. The training compute cost of developing the next SOTA NLP model will likely be even greater.

Research on pre-trained models requires small compute budgets

Second, research on pre-trained models is much less compute-intensive in comparison. For example, if one would have spent the computational resources required to train GPT-3 on inference rather than training, one could have produced up to 56 billion words — that's 14-times the number of words of the English Wikipedia. We estimate that a recent paper investigating anti-muslim bias in GPT-3 likely required less than $100 of compute. Fine-tuning of pre-trained models also appears very low cost, at least in natural language processing. OpenAI charges $120 for fine-tuning GPT-3 on 1 million tokens, which is more than the company used in a recent paper to fine-tune GPT-3 to avoid toxic outputs.

Through access to pre-trained models, many more people can cheaply access high-end AI capabilities, including people from domains outside AI and AI researchers who lack access to large amounts of compute and teams of engineers. To illustrate the low cost, we estimate that every US AI PhD student could be provided with five times the compute required to produce a paper on biases in large language models for the cost of training one Gopher-sized model (around $9.5M). 

Relative to open-sourcing, model access via API reduces the chance of misuse and supports model monetization

Third, the ability to provide structured access may incentivize producers to make their models available via API rather than open-sourcing them. Using an API, developers can allow access to their models while curtailing misuse and enabling monetization. AI models can be used for ill, for instance through disinformation, surveillance, or hacking. Large language models can also reveal privacy-infringing information, not intended by their developers. By only providing access to the model via an API, a developer can put in place checks, tripwires, and other forms of monitoring and enforce terms of service to avoid the model’s inappropriate use. They can also introduce restrictions on the inputs that can be sent to the models and update these restrictions over time, for instance to close loopholes or address newly discovered forms of misuse.

Although open-source models typically provide researchers with a greater deal of flexibility than API access, this discrepancy can be reduced. Access via API does not need to be limited to only running inference on a given input; API functionality can go further. Fundamental tasks, such as fine-tuning the model, can and should be enabled to offer a wide variety of research. For example, OpenAI recently allowed the fine-tuning of GPT-3 via API access, letting users customize this language model to a desired task. Google’s Vision API and Cohere’s language model also offer customization via fine-tuning. In the future, more functionality could be introduced to ensure that research via API is only minimally restrictive. For instance, it is possible to allow external researchers to remotely analyze a model’s inner workings without giving away its weights.

Companies are also likely to increasingly offer access to their most powerful models via API, rather than by open-sourcing them, as doing so provides them with the opportunity to monetize their models. Examples include OpenAI, Cohere, Amazon Web Services (AWS), and Google Cloud which allow access to their models solely via an API, for a fee.

Given the right infrastructure, it is significantly easier for researchers to use a pre-trained model that is accessed through an API than it is for them to implement the model themselves

Doing AI research and building products using pre-trained models accessed via API has some advantages compared to implementing the model oneself. Implementing large models, even for research purposes, can require significant engineering talent, expertise, and computing infrastructure. Academics and students often lack these resources and so might benefit from API access. 

It is becoming increasingly inefficient to do “full-stack” AI research. AI research is seeing an increasing division of labor between machine learning engineers and researchers, with the former group specializing in how to efficiently run and deploy large-scale models. This is a natural development: as a field matures, specialization tends to increase. For instance, AI researchers virtually always rely on software libraries developed by others, such as Tensorflow and Pytorch, rather than starting from scratch. Similarly, an increasing portion of tomorrow’s AI research could be done largely by building on top of pre-trained models created by others.

Scrutinizing large-scale models may be increasingly important research and plays to the comparative advantage of academic researchers

Lastly, academic researchers may be increasingly drawn to research aimed at scrutinizing and understanding large-scale AI models, as this could constitute some of the most important and interesting research of the next decade and academics could be particularly well-suited to conduct it. 

As AI systems become more sophisticated and integrated into our economy, there’s a risk that these models become doubly opaque to society: Firstly, the workings of the models themselves may be opaque. Secondly, the model developer might not reveal what they know about its workings to the wider world. Such opacity undermines our ability to understand the impacts of these models and what can be done to improve their effects. As a result, research aimed at understanding and auditing large models could become increasingly valued and respected.

Academic researchers are also particularly well-suited to conducting this kind of research. Many are drawn to academia, rather than industry, because they are motivated by a desire for fundamental understanding (e.g. how and why AI systems work) and care relatively less about building systems that achieve impressive results. On average, researchers who decide to stay in academia (and forgo much higher salaries) are also more likely to be concerned about the profit incentives and possible negative social impacts of private labs. This suggests that academics could find scrutinizing private labs’ models appealing. On the other hand, in addition to access to large amounts of compute and the ability to implement large models, there are a number of factors that place private labs at an advantage with regard to developing large models. Private labs have the ability to offer higher salaries, vast datasets, the infrastructure necessary to deploy models in the real world, and strong financial incentives to develop models at the frontier, as these models can be integrated into billion-dollar products like search and news feeds. 

Some early examples are already beginning to emerge, which illustrate how this division of responsibilities could work in practice. For instance, Facebook and Twitter recently opened up APIs that give researchers and academics access to data of user interactions with their platforms in a safe, privacy-preserving environment.


1 - According to one analysis, since 2016 every AI system that has set a new record for compute consumption has been produced by a private lab.

2 - Fine-tuning describes the process of improving the performance of a pre-trained model on a specific task by training it on a task-related dataset.

3 - The authors probably used less than 10,000 prompts of around 20 tokens and received 10,000 outputs of around 20 tokens. This sums up to a total cost of around $24 via the OpenAI Davinci API ($0.06 per 1,000 tokens). This would be cheaper if using a less powerful version of GPT-3 or when the inference is self-hosted.

Further reading