The Coming Software Apocalypse – The Atlantic

Source: The Coming Software Apocalypse – The Atlantic

The simultaneous failure of so many software systems smelled at first of a coordinated cyberattack. Almost more frightening was the realization, late in the day, that it was just a coincidence.

software doesn’t break. Intrado’s faulty threshold is not like the faulty rivet that leads to the crash of an airliner. The software did exactly what it was told to do. In fact it did it perfectly. The reason it failed is that it was told to do the wrong thing. Software failures are failures of understanding, and of imagination.

“The problem,” Leveson wrote in a book, “is that we are attempting to build systems that are beyond our ability to intellectually manage.” … This is the trouble with making things out of code, as opposed to something physical. “The complexity,” as Leveson puts it, “is invisible to the eye.” … Software has enabled us to make the most intricate machines that have ever existed. And yet we have hardly noticed, because all of that complexity is packed into tiny silicon chips as millions and millions of lines of code. But just because we can’t see the complexity doesn’t mean that it has gone away. … Gerard Berry said in his talk. “When your tires are flat, you look at your tires, they are flat. When your software is broken, you look at your software, you see nothing. So that’s a big problem.”

software becomes unruly because the media for describing what software should do—conversations, prose descriptions, drawings on a sheet of paper—are too different from the media describing what software does do, namely, code itself. Too much is lost going from one to the other. The idea behind model-based design is to close the gap. The very same model is used both by system designers to express what they want and by the computer to automatically generate code.

“In the 15th century, people used to build cathedrals without knowing calculus, and nowadays I don’t think you’d allow anyone to build a cathedral without knowing calculus. And I would hope that after some suitably long period of time, people won’t be allowed to write programs if they don’t understand these simple things.” — Leslie Lamport