Maths moves bug-free software towards reality

Tom Tilley has a dream to live in a world free of buggy software and his mission is being realised through research being developed at the centre for Enterprise Distributed Systems Technology

Tom Tilley has a dream to live in a world free of buggy software and his mission is being realised through research being developed at the centre for Enterprise Distributed Systems Technology.

The technique known as 'formal methods' specifies what software should do before it is written, but because it is maths-based it is beyond the reach of the average programmer.

The maths involved, says Brisbane-based Tilley, is "pretty high powered" so "you literally need to be a rocket scientist to use it", which is why the only organization currently using the technique is the US Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

To spare programmers becoming mathematical whizzes, Tilley is developing a visual system that converts the maths into line diagrams. These visual aids help programmers understand whether the software is correctly matching specifications.

Tilley said the diagrams are known as 'formal concept lattices' and can be used to navigate and query a specification to create end-user nirvana — bug free software.

"Technically, the tools are available now to have bug-free software as this method provides mathematical proof that the software is bug-free; we just need to replace the maths with visualisations so it is available for widespread use," he said.

Tilley expects to have a prototype tool available in coming months that could be used by software engineering houses.

His prototype could mean salvation for the likes of Microsoft, but Tilley said he has no plans to sell his research to the software giant.

He sees his prototype being used in safety-critical software to prevent computer crashes.

For example it could be used to control airplanes, spacecraft, traffic and rail networks in a bid to prevent software disasters that could lead to real disasters.

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