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Saving Lives at the Sharp End of Software Engineering

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Publié le lundi 30 septembre 2019

According to the last major study in IT project failures, conducted by McKinsey and University of Oxford, half of all large IT projects “massively blow” their budgets. These large projects (defined as IT projects starting out with a budget of over $15 million) on average exceed their budgets by about 45%. In fact, the 5,400 IT projects studied had a collective cost overrun of $66 billion – more than the GDP of Luxembourg.

In many cases, the report suggests, these failures boil down to a lack of focus and clarity. In other words, they boil down to inadequate requirements. And while the prospect of inadequate requirements leading to project overruns is one thing, the prospect of them resulting in software defects that could result in death is quite another.

This is the reality faced by software engineers working in the field of cyber-physical systems, where complex software is deeply intertwined with a physical system in order to perform a vital function. From travelling in airplanes equipped with autopilot to depending on the anti-lock braking system in our cars, we rely almost every day on these complex, intelligent technologies.

The safety of the people interacting with cyber-physical systems often depends on the embedded software working reliably. Because while a “blue screen of death” on our desktop computers can ruin a day, that sort of a failure in an autopilot could ruin a life. But SnT’s Dr Sallam Abualhaija and Dr Shiva Nejati are giving software engineers the tools to make our increasingly cyber-physical world a little bit safer.

Dr Abualhaija is developing a tool for examining software requirements documents written for cyber-physical systems. Her tool lets project managers, software engineers, and government regulators alike comb software requirements documents to check for ambiguity, vagueness, and inconsistencies. What makes her tool particularly useful is that it seeks out only legally binding requirements. This means that stakeholders don’t get bogged down by supplementary information, for example regarding preferred design choices, as they move through the requirements writing process. This lets all the parties really focus on what matters most.

Dr Nejati and her team, on the other hand, are building a technology that takes a completed requirements document and turns it into a mathematical representation. By translating English sentences into logical equations, defects in the system can be spotted systematically. With cyber-physical systems, the software can then be checked to ensure it respects all of the systems’ physical limitations as well.

Their projects, conducted in collaboration with Canada-based QRA Corp., a company specialising in the development of enterprise tools for software quality assurance, will help make the cyber-physical systems we interact with every day a whole lot safer.

 

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