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Programming using genetic algorithms: isn’t that what humans already do ;-)

October 18th, 2013 No comments

Some time ago I wrote about the use of genetic programming to fix faults in software (i.e., insertion/deletion of random code fragments into an existing program). Earlier this week I was at a lively workshop, Genetic Programming for Software Engineering, with some of the very active researchers in this new subfield.

The genetic algorithm works by having a population of different programs, selecting X% of the best (as measured by some fitness function), making random mutations to those chosen and/or combining bits of programs with other programs; these modified programs are fed back to the fitness function and the whole process iterates until an acceptable solution is found (or a maximum iteration limit is reached).

There are lots of options to tweak; the fitness function gets to decide who has children and is obviously very important, but it can only work with what get generated by the genetic mutations.

The idea I was promoting, to anybody unfortunate enough to be standing in front of me, was that the pattern of usage seen in human written code provides lots of very useful information for improving the performance of genetic algorithms in finding programs having the desired characteristics.

I think that the pattern of usage seen in human written code is driven by the requirements of the problems being solved and regular occurrence of the same patterns is an indication of the regularity with which the same requirements need to be met. As a representation of commonly occurring requirements these patterns are pre-tuned templates for genetic mutation and information to help fitness functions make life/death decisions (i.e., doesn’t look human enough, die!)

There is some noise in existing patterns of code usage, generated by random developer habits and larger fluctuations caused by many developers following the style in some popular book. I don’t have a good handle on estimating the signal to noise ratio.

There has been some work comparing the human maintainability of patches that have been written by genetic algorithms/humans. One of the driving forces behind this work is the expectation that the final patch will still be controlled by humans; having a patch look human-written like is thought to increase the likelihood of it being ‘accepted’ by developers.

Genetic algorithms are also used to improve the runtime performance of programs. Bill Langdon reported that the authors of a program ‘he’ had speeded up by a factor of 70 had not responded to his emails. This may be a case of the authors not knowing how to handle something somewhat off the beaten track; it took a while for Linux developers to start responding to batches of fault reports generated as part of software analysis projects by academic research groups.

One area where human-like might not always be desirable is test case generation. It is easy to find faults in compilers by generating random source code (the syntax/semantics of the randomness follows the rules of the language standard). This approach results in an unmanageable number of fault. Is it worth fixing a fault generated by code that looks like it would never be written by a person? Perhaps the generator should stick to producing test cases that at least look like the code might be written by a person.