Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Goodbye to faulty software?

17.07.2008
Will it ever be possible to buy software guaranteed to be free from bugs? A team of European researchers think so. Their work on the mathematical foundations of programming could one day revolutionise the software industry.

We have become used to the idea that software will not work properly. While we would take a faulty car back to the dealer and demand they put it right, we are remarkably tolerant of software that goes wrong.

The software we buy usually comes with no guarantee and disclaimers are notoriously all encompassing. We no longer expect everything to work correctly ‘out of the box’. More to the point, neither does the manufacturer. Indeed, software houses seem to rely on their customers to find faults, which they can then ‘patch’ in a so-called ‘upgrade’ of the product.

“The software industry is still very immature compared to other branches of engineering,” says Dr Bengt Nordström, a computer scientist at Chalmers University in Göteborg. “We want to see programming as an engineering discipline but it’s not there yet. It’s not based on good theory and we don’t have good design methods to make sure that at each step we produce something that’s correct.”

Nordström believes that the whole approach to software design needs to be rethought. The usual approach is to validate a program via a lengthy testing process. Instead, he would like to see a design philosophy that guarantees from first principles that a program will do what it says on the box.

The key lies in an esoteric reformulation of mathematics called ‘type theory’ based on the notion of computation. In this approach, the specification for a computational task is stated as a mathematical theorem. The program that performs the computation is equivalent to the proof of the theorem. By proving the theorem the program is guaranteed to be correct.

Open source

It is not that simple, of course, but so promising is type theory that since 1989 the EU has been funding a string of projects to develop it under the Future and Emerging Technologies programme.

Nordström was coordinator of one of the projects, TYPES, which fosters co-operation on the topic among researchers at 15 European universities and research institutes, along with those at 19 associated academic and industrial organisations.

The TYPES partners are also releasing open source software packages that anyone can download, use and modify. These packages include several ‘proof editors’ that, in type theory, are the key to guaranteeing the correctness of programs.

Can such an abstract research area really lead to reliable, bug-free software?

“European research in this field is the strongest in the world,” Nordström points out. “Many computer programs are going wrong, they don’t work properly, and in the long run this research will help. This is a very slow process, it takes many years to get ideas from the universities into industry but I think it’s slowly taking place.”

The open source principle, says Nordström, is fundamental to what they are trying to achieve.

“It’s important that anyone can evaluate the code and check if it is correct, so it’s inherent in this project that what we are doing should be open so that it can be discussed by everybody.”

Results from type theory are already finding their way into other projects. The EU-funded Mobius project is developing methods, known as ‘proof-carrying code’, for downloaded programs to be certified as bug-free.

Meanwhile, a France-based company is using ideas from type theory to design secure embedded computer systems such as those used for smart cards. Further research is also under way in Japan.

Theory, in practice

Researchers have also demonstrated the power of type theory by proving the classic ‘four colour’ theorem with one of the proof editors used in TYPES. Type theory is also finding application in the analysis of human language.

Nordström does not see type theory as being necessary for all programs, but there is a clear need for guarantees in critical systems in banking, for example. But type theory could also be important in the transport, defence and healthcare sectors, where mistakes can cost lives.

TYPES received funding from the EU’s Sixth Framework Programme for research as a ‘coordination action’, which describes projects that aim to oil the wheels of co-operation rather than directly develop a new technology. TYPES interweaves both basic and applied research.

“That’s one thing I find very, very interesting compared to other sciences,” Nordström notes. “We are maybe 150 people working in this project and it’s a mixture of very practical persons and very theoretical persons and there is a lot of exchange between them. I think that’s very rare compared to other sciences.”

He hopes that the work done under TYPES will ultimately allow programming to mature into a genuine engineering discipline with the same high standards and quality assurance now expected elsewhere in the engineering profession.

“A lot of effort is now spent on testing software,” he says. “Very often programs are written quite quickly and then they are tested and changed and tested again, and so on. It’s very unsystematic. This is not how we build bridges and highways.

That style of working is going to change so that we spend more effort on actually writing programs than testing them.”

Christian Nielsen | alfa
Further information:
http://cordis.europa.eu/ictresults
http://cordis.europa.eu/ictresults/index.cfm/section/news/tpl/article/BrowsingType/Features/ID/89864

More articles from Information Technology:

nachricht The TU Ilmenau develops tomorrow’s chip technology today
27.04.2017 | Technische Universität Ilmenau

nachricht Five developments for improved data exploitation
19.04.2017 | Deutsches Forschungszentrum für Künstliche Intelligenz GmbH, DFKI

All articles from Information Technology >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Making lightweight construction suitable for series production

More and more automobile companies are focusing on body parts made of carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP). However, manufacturing and repair costs must be further reduced in order to make CFRP more economical in use. Together with the Volkswagen AG and five other partners in the project HolQueSt 3D, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) has developed laser processes for the automatic trimming, drilling and repair of three-dimensional components.

Automated manufacturing processes are the basis for ultimately establishing the series production of CFRP components. In the project HolQueSt 3D, the LZH has...

Im Focus: Wonder material? Novel nanotube structure strengthens thin films for flexible electronics

Reflecting the structure of composites found in nature and the ancient world, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have synthesized thin carbon nanotube (CNT) textiles that exhibit both high electrical conductivity and a level of toughness that is about fifty times higher than copper films, currently used in electronics.

"The structural robustness of thin metal films has significant importance for the reliable operation of smart skin and flexible electronics including...

Im Focus: Deep inside Galaxy M87

The nearby, giant radio galaxy M87 hosts a supermassive black hole (BH) and is well-known for its bright jet dominating the spectrum over ten orders of magnitude in frequency. Due to its proximity, jet prominence, and the large black hole mass, M87 is the best laboratory for investigating the formation, acceleration, and collimation of relativistic jets. A research team led by Silke Britzen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has found strong indication for turbulent processes connecting the accretion disk and the jet of that galaxy providing insights into the longstanding problem of the origin of astrophysical jets.

Supermassive black holes form some of the most enigmatic phenomena in astrophysics. Their enormous energy output is supposed to be generated by the...

Im Focus: A Quantum Low Pass for Photons

Physicists in Garching observe novel quantum effect that limits the number of emitted photons.

The probability to find a certain number of photons inside a laser pulse usually corresponds to a classical distribution of independent events, the so-called...

Im Focus: Microprocessors based on a layer of just three atoms

Microprocessors based on atomically thin materials hold the promise of the evolution of traditional processors as well as new applications in the field of flexible electronics. Now, a TU Wien research team led by Thomas Müller has made a breakthrough in this field as part of an ongoing research project.

Two-dimensional materials, or 2D materials for short, are extremely versatile, although – or often more precisely because – they are made up of just one or a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Expert meeting “Health Business Connect” will connect international medical technology companies

20.04.2017 | Event News

Wenn der Computer das Gehirn austrickst

18.04.2017 | Event News

7th International Conference on Crystalline Silicon Photovoltaics in Freiburg on April 3-5, 2017

03.04.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

From volcano's slope, NASA instrument looks sky high and to the future

27.04.2017 | Earth Sciences

Control of molecular motion by metal-plated 3-D printed plastic pieces

27.04.2017 | Materials Sciences

Move over, Superman! NIST method sees through concrete to detect early-stage corrosion

27.04.2017 | Materials Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>