Romantic enthusiasm for verification

Recently, a workshop got me interested in contract programming again. In essence, programming by contract means we annotate our source code with pre- and postconditions.

@Requires(numChars % 2 == 0)
@Ensures(result.length() == numChars)
String foo(int numChars) {

This is like saying "the only proper way to call this method with a numChars parameter that is even. You will get a nice non-empty string in return." Sounds like a deal.

There is probably a lot to say about contracts and how they can help developers understand their code. There are frameworks that will take these annotations and turn these into run-time checks. My interest is more in verification though. Automated program verification is really hard to do, because several undecidability results apply -- but in the words of Prof Jürgen Giesl this also means that one can always improve the state of the art.

The previous time I got excited by contracts was when I had the pleasure to host Prof Peter Müller at Google where he give a talk and demo of SpecSharp. The article Specification and Verification: The Spec# Experience gives a glimpse of the programming system the authors had built. An amusing quote from there: "When programmers see our demos, they often develop a romantic enthusiasm that does not correspond to verification reality."

Let me state that dream here: a program is made of method calls. If the compiler, or IDE, "understands" the pre-conditions and post-conditions of method calls, it should be able to chain these "facts" together and achieve some form of "understanding" of the program. This can help developers add or change lines and get immediate feedback on whether the source code they write is correct.

Going back to the example above: imagine writing foo(3) in your IDE and having it underlined in squiggly red, with a mouse-over message stating "precondition numChars % 2 == 0 not satisfied".

Spec# translates the pre- and postconditions into Satisfiability Modulo Theories (SMT) problems which are then solved by the underlying engine called Boogie. Another SMT solver is Z3 which has a readable tutorial. Reading up on these, it is quite striking that Spec# is working on a real programming language, and that neat interfaces do exist between the layers of byte code, verification source and the nitty gritty predicate logic formulae.

And then, there still is the following flaw, quoted here:

At the moment you find an error, your brain may disappear because
of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and be replaced by a new
brain that thinks the proof is correct.
L.A. Levin

Just kidding. Robert Pollack's article is concerned with the problem that we can come up with a system that will verify our program, but we won't necessarily be able to trust it, because it is a program itself. Here is the bit that is relevant though: "My guess is that tech- 
nologies of automated proof search will be highly developed because of economic 
pressure for reliable hardware and software, and these, applied as tactics to proof 
checking, will make formal mathematics a practical reality in the foreseeable fu- 

It seems we still have a long way to go before developers see the light in IDEs having some form of automated program verification. I have a hope that if one goes back to natural deduction style proofs, logical frameworks or simple logic programming with SLD resolution, it may be possible to write reasonable (logical) annotations and have proper support. Let (expert) programmers write more. Only experimentation can show whether this is a good idea.

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