If you are in the world of programming languages research, the announcement that UW had hired Ras Bodik away from Berkeley was big news. Quoting UW’s announcement:
Ras’s arrival creates a truly world-class programming languages group in UW CSE that crosses into systems, databases, security, architecture, and other areas. Ras joins recent hires Emina Torlak,[ref]We previously interviewed Emina on this blog.[/ref] Alvin Cheung, Xi Wang, and Zach Tatlock, and senior faculty members Dan Grossman and Mike Ernst.
And there’s also Luis Ceze, a regular publisher at PLDI, who ought to be considered as part of this group. With him, UW CSE has 8 out of 54 faculty with strong ties to PL. Hiring five PL-oriented faculty in three years, thus making PL a significant fraction of the faculty’s expertise, is (highly) atypical. What motivated UW CSE in its decision-making? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect they see that PL-oriented researchers are making huge inroads on important problems, bringing a useful perspective to unlock new results.
In this post, I argue why studying PL (for your PhD, Masters, or just for fun) can be interesting and rewarding, both because of what you will learn, and because of the increasing opportunities that are available, e.g., in terms of impactful research topics and funding for them.
[Guest poster Thomas Ball of Microsoft Research remembers his Ph.D. advisor, Professor and programming languages researcher Susan Horwitz, who recently passed away. –Mike]
Automated analysis of programs is one of the major success stories in PL. The goal here is to algorithmically infer properties of a program’s runtime behavior without executing the program on concrete inputs. This may be done for many reasons, including optimization and reasoning about correctness. If you are trying to optimize a program, it helps to know that a statement executed within a loop always performs the same update, and can therefore be moved out of the loop. If you want to be certain that your C program doesn’t have buffer overflows, you want to infer bounds on the indices used for array accesses in the program.
Over the years, systems for program analysis have increased in sophistication and entered the mainstream of software development. But how do you know that what your analysis tells you is correct? To be certain that it is, we must relate the program’s semantics – what the program does at runtime – to what the analysis algorithm computes. The framework of abstract interpretation is the gold standard for doing so.
Radhia Cousot, co-inventor of abstract interpretation, passed away earlier this summer after a long struggle with cancer. While her death was tragic, I am consoled that she lived to see her work impact the world in a way that most researchers can only dream of.