Collisions at the Large Hadron Collider happen fast. 40 million times a second, bunches of 1011 protons are smashed together. The rate of these collisions is so fast that the computing infrastructure of the experiments can’t keep up with all of them. We are not able to read out and store the result of every collision that happens, so we have to ‘throw out’ nearly all of them. Luckily most of these collisions are not very interesting anyways. Most of them are low energy interactions of quarks and gluons via the strong force that have been already been studied at previous colliders. In fact, the interesting processes, like ones that create a Higgs boson, can happen billions of times less often than the uninteresting ones.
The LHC experiments are thus faced with a very interesting challenge, how do you decide extremely quickly whether an event is interesting and worth keeping or not? This what the ‘trigger’ system, the Marie Kondo of LHC experiments, are designed to do. CMS for example has a two-tiered trigger system. The first level has 4 microseconds to make a decision and must reduce the event rate from 40 millions events per second to 100,000. This speed requirement means the decision has to be made using at the hardware level, requiring the use of specialized electronics to quickly to synthesize the raw information from the detector into a rough idea of what happened in the event. Selected events are then passed to the High Level Trigger (HLT), which has 150 milliseconds to run versions of the CMS reconstruction algorithms to further reduce the event rate to a thousand per second.
While this system works very well for most uses of the data, like measuring the decay of Higgs bosons, sometimes it can be a significant obstacle. If you want to look through the data for evidence of a new particle that is relatively light, it can be difficult to prevent the trigger from throwing out possible signal events. This is because one of the most basic criteria the trigger uses to select ‘interesting’ events is that they leave a significant amount of energy in the detector. But the decay products of a new particle that is relatively light won’t have a substantial amount of energy and thus may look ‘uninteresting’ to the trigger.
In order to get the most out of their collisions, experimenters are thinking hard about these problems and devising new ways to look for signals the triggers might be missing. One idea is to save additional events from the HLT in a substantially reduced size. Rather than saving the raw information from the event, that can be fully processed at a later time, instead the only the output of the quick reconstruction done by the trigger is saved. At the cost of some precision, this can reduce the size of each event by roughly two orders of magnitude, allowing events with significantly lower energy to be stored. CMS and ATLAS have used this technique to look for new particles decaying to two jets and LHCb has used it to look for dark photons. The use of these fast reconstruction techniques allows them to search for, and rule out the existence of, particles with much lower masses than otherwise possible. As experiments explore new computing infrastructures (like GPU’s) to speed up their high level triggers, they may try to do even more sophisticated analyses using these techniques.
But experimenters aren’t just satisfied with getting more out of their high level triggers, they want to revamp the low-level ones as well. In order to get these hardware-level triggers to make smarter decisions, experimenters are trying get them to run machine learning models. Machine learning has become very popular tool to look for rare signals in LHC data. One of the advantages of machine learning models is that once they have been trained, they can make complex inferences in a very short amount of time. Perfect for a trigger! Now a group of experimentalists have developed a library that can translate the most popular types machine learning models into a format that can be run on the Field Programmable Gate Arrays used in lowest level triggers. This would allow experiments to quickly identify events from rare signals that have complex signatures that the current low-level triggers don’t have time to look for.
The LHC experiments are working hard to get the most out their collisions. There could be particles being produced in LHC collisions already but we haven’t been able to see them because of our current triggers, but these new techniques are trying to cover our current blind spots. Look out for new ideas on how to quickly search for interesting signatures, especially as we get closer the high luminosity upgrade of the LHC.
CERN Courier article on programming FPGA’s
IRIS HEP Article on a recent workshop on Fast ML techniques
CERN Courier article on older CMS search for low mass dijet resonances
ATLAS Search using ‘trigger-level’ jets
LHCb Search for Dark Photons using fast reconstruction based on a high level trigger
Paper demonstrating the feasibility of running ML models for jet tagging on FPGA’s