May 7-10, 2017 Asilomar, California

Natural language is a programming language: Applying natural language processing to software development

Michael Ernst

A powerful, but limited, way to view software is as source code alone. Treating a program as a sequence of instructions enables it to be formalized and makes it amenable to mathematical techniques such as abstract interpretation and model checking. A program consists of much more than a sequence of instructions. Developers make use of test cases, documentation, variable names, program structure, the version control repository, and more. I argue that it is time to take the blinders off of software analysis tools: tools should use all these artifacts to deduce more powerful and useful information about the program. Researchers are beginning to make progress towards this vision. This paper discusses four initial results that find bugs and generate code by applying natural language processing techniques to software artifacts. The four techniques use as input error messages, variable names, procedure documentation, and user questions. They use four different NLP techniques: document similarity, word semantics, parse trees, and neural networks. The initial results suggest that this is a promising avenue for future work.