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Software maintenance via genetic programming

November 27th, 2009

Genetic algorithms have been used to find solution to a wide variety of problems, including compiler optimizations. It was only a matter of time before somebody applied these techniques to fixing faults in source code.

When I first skimmed the paper “A Genetic Programming Approach to Automated Software Repair” I was surprised at how successful the genetic algorithm was, using as it did such a relatively small amount of cpu resources. A more careful reading of the paper located one very useful technique for reducing the size of the search space; the automated software repair system started by profiling the code to find out which parts of it were executed by the test cases and only considered statements that were executed by these tests for mutation operations (they give a much higher weighting to statements only executed by the failing test case than to statements executed by the other tests; I am a bit surprised that this weighting difference is worthwhile). I hate to think of the amount of time I have wasted trying to fix a bug by looking at code that was not executed by the test case I was running.

I learned more about this very interesting system from one of the authors when he gave the keynote at a workshop organized by people associated with a source code analysis group I was a member of.

The search space was further constrained by only performing mutations at the statement level (i.e., expressions and declarations were not touched) and restricting the set of candidate statements for insertion into the code to those statements already contained within the code, such as if (x != NULL) (i.e., new statements were not randomly created and existing statements were not modified in any way). As measurements of existing code show most uses of a construct are covered by a few simple cases and most statements are constructed from a small number of commonly used constructs. It is no surprise that restricting the candidate insertion set to existing code works so well. Of course no fault fix that depends on using a statement not contained within the source will ever be found.

There is ongoing work looking at genetic modifications at the expression level. This
work shares a problem with GA driven test coverage algorithms; how to find ‘magic numbers’ (in the case of test coverage the magic numbers are those that will cause a controlling expression to be true or false). Literals in source code, like those on the web, tend to follow a power’ish law but the fit to Benford’s law is not good.

Once mutated source that correctly processes the previously failing test case, plus continuing to pass the other test cases, has been generated the code is passed to the final phase of the automated software repair system. Many mutations have no effect on program behavior (the DNA term intron is sometimes applied to them) and the final phase removes any of the added statements that have no effect on test suite output (Westley Weimer said that a reduction from 50 statements to 10 statements is common).

Might the ideas behind this very interesting research system end up being used in ‘live’ software? I think so. There are systems that operate 24/7 where faults cost money. One can imagine a fault being encountered late at night, a genetic based system fixing the fault which then updates the live system, the human developers being informed and deciding what to do later. It does not take much imagination to see the cost advantages driving expensive human input out of the loop in some cases.

An on-going research topic is the extent to which a good quality test suite is needed to ensure that mutated fault fixes don’t introduce new faults. Human written software is known to often be remarkably tolerant to the presence of faults. Perhaps ensuring that software has this characteristic is something that should be investigated.

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