System aims to stop software glitches

JODY O'CALLAGHAN
Last updated 09:44 10/01/2013
David Pearce
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INVENTIVE: David Pearce from Victoria University's School of Engineering and Computer Science, has designed a programming language that uses automated mathematical and logical reasoning to check computer software decisions are correct.

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Computer glitches that caused an unattended supermarket to open and a bank to mistakenly offer unlimited overdrafts could be avoided thanks to a Wellington scientist's research.

Victoria University senior computer science lecturer David Pearce is developing a system that aims to remove glitches from new software where security is paramount.

Although not yet complete, his programming language, Whiley, was "making good progress" to become the most comprehensive in software improvement, he said.

The system, for which Dr Pearce started receiving a Marsden Grant last year, had already drawn attention from international partners in London, Canada and America.

"The basic idea is to try and improve the quality of software. What I'm doing is trying to develop a system to help programmers to find bugs in their code."

While it was not a "magic bullet" that would solve all potential problems, programs would at least do what was intended using mathematical proof, he said.

"It's not like, ‘oh, it's going to solve everything', but it will help definitely."

Examples of where software had gone wrong in New Zealand included TSB last year mistakenly offering customers unlimited overdraft access.

Hamilton Pak ‘n Save supermarket's security system opened its doors to hordes of opportunists on what should have been a closed supermarket on Good Friday in 2011.

"People literally went in and started taking things out," Dr Pearce said.

Asked if his system could help the Education Ministry's ailing Talent2 teacher pay system, Novopay, he said, "it seems to me they clearly have some problems with the development of the software".

"To me it sounds like a failure of the software engineering process... [Talent2] haven't done it rigorously."

Software was used in all industries, and failures in designing the likes of aeroplanes and cars "can be really disastrous", he said.

"We want to minimise any chance of failure and my system is about doing that. Essentially I'm trying to push the boundaries much, much more."

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