Effort to prevent software failure

Computer users around the world may heave a sigh of relief if the efforts of a Victoria University research proves fruitful and commercially and widely applicable.

Dr David Pearce of the University’s School of Engineering and Computer Science is in the process of creating a new programming language, which he said has the potential to prevent future software failures in safety-critical systems.

He has been developing the programming language, called, ‘Whiley’ since 2009 and received a Marsden ‘Fast-Start Grant’ in 2011 to progress his research.

Dr Pearce said that with wide use of software for almost all types of jobs, there was a need to eliminate possible errors.

“Currently, the most widely accepted way of eliminating software errors is through extensive testing. But as systems become increasingly complex, this cannot always guarantee the absence of errors, because in large systems it is not feasible to test every possible input,” he said.

Some disasters

He cited as examples, the ‘Therac-25 disaster,’ where a computer-operated radiation therapy machine gave patients lethal doses; and the power outage in the US in 2003, which led to about 45 million people to live without electricity for two days.

Among the problems created by software glitches in New Zealand included a bank ‘gifting’ its customers unlimited overdraft access (TSB 2012); a security system that opened a closed supermarket (Mill St Pak N Save in Hamilton, 2011); and broadband meters incorrectly calculating usage (Telecom, 2011).

He hoped that ‘Whiley’ would have applications for everyday software programmes and highly specialised software for systems in which safety is critical.

Modern cars, he said, typically run about 100 million lines of computer code and hence safety is paramount.

“Certain mistakes are common in computer programmes; for example, overflow errors, where a number is simply too large for the computer to handle.

“Whiley has the potential to ensure that scenarios like these can be avoided in the future, by testing the logic of the program in advance,” Dr Pearce said.

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