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Would you buy second hand software from a formal methods researcher?

I have been reading a paper on formally proving software correct (Bridging the Gap: Automatic Verified Abstraction of C by Greenaway, Andronick and Klein) and as often the case with papers on this topic the authors have failed to reach the level of honest presentation required by manufacturers of soap power in their adverts.

The Greenaway et al paper describes a process that uses a series of translation steps to convert a C program into what is claimed to be a high level specification in Isabelle/HOL (a language+support tool for doing formal proofs).

The paper was published by an Australian research group; I could not find an Australian advertising standards code dealing with soap power but did find one covering food and beverages. Here is what the Australian Association of National Advertisers has to say in their Food & Beverages Advertising & Marketing Communications Code:

“2.1 Advertising or Marketing Communications for Food or Beverage Products shall be truthful and honest, shall not be or be designed to be misleading or deceptive or otherwise contravene Prevailing Community Standards, and shall be communicated in a manner appropriate to the level of understanding of the target audience of the Advertising or Marketing Communication with an accurate presentation of all information…”

So what claims and statements do Greenaway et al make?

2.1 “Before code can be reasoned about, it must first be translated into the theorem prover.” A succinct introduction to one of the two main tasks, the other being to prove the correctness of these translations.

“In this work, we consider programs in C99 translated into Isabelle/HOL using Norrish’s C parser … As the parser must be trusted, it attempts to be simple, giving the most literal translation of C wherever possible.”

“As the parser must be trusted”? Why must it be trusted? Oh, because there is no proof that it is correct, in fact there is not a lot of supporting evidence that the language handled by Norrish’s translator is an faithful subset of C (ok, for his PhD Norrish wrote a formal semantics of a subset of C; but this is really just a compiler written in mathematics and there are umpteen PhDs who have written compilers for a subset of C; doing it using a mathematical notation does not make it any more fault free).

The rest of the paper describes how the output of Norrish’s translator is generally massaged to make it easier for people to read (e.g., remove redundant statements and rename variables).

Then we get to the conclusion which starts by claiming: “We have presented a tool that automatically abstracts low-level C semantics into higher-level specifications with automatic proofs of correctness for each of the transformation steps.”

Oh no you didn’t. There is no proof for the main transformation step of C to Isabelle/HOL. The only proofs described in the paper are for the post processing fiddling about that was done after the only major transformation step.

And what exactly is this “high-level specification”? The output of the Norrish translator was postprocessed to remove the clutter that invariably gets generated in any high-level language to high-level language translator. Is the result of this postprocessing a specification? Surely it is just a less cluttered representation of the original C?

Actually this paper does contain a major advance in formally proving software correct, tucked away at the start it says “As the parser must be trusted…”. There it is in black and white, if you have some software that must be trusted don’t bother with formal proofs just simply follow the advice given here.

But wait a minute you say, I am ignoring the get out of jail wording “… shall be communicated in a manner appropriate to the level of understanding of the target audience …”. What is the appropriate level of understanding of the target audience, in fact who is the target audience? Is the target audience other formal methods researchers who are familiar with the level of intellectual honesty within their field and take claims made by professional colleagues with a pinch of salt? Are non-formal methods researchers not the target audience and so have no redress to being misled by the any claims made by papers in this field?

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