ASU director's paper garners award for positive impact on the field

New approach looks to biological processes for better ways to automate software debugging

May 16, 2019

Maintaining software is costly, and for developers like Facebook and Microsoft, repairing software bugs can be very expensive. Today, most software bugs are repaired by humans — highly trained software engineers. About 10 years ago, a group of researchers, including Stephanie Forrest, director of Arizona State University's Biodesign Center for Biocomputing, Security and Society, looked to biological processes like evolution for ideas about ways to automate debugging. The result was a totally new approach for locating and repairing bugs in software.

The first paper to report a practical demonstration of the approach, “Automatically Finding Patches Using Genetic Programming,” was co-authored by Forrest and published in the proceedings of the 31st International Conference on Software Engineering (ICSE) in 2009. Its groundbreaking impact and importance to the field of software engineering will be recognized with an award for the Ten-Year Most Influential Paper at the organization’s 41st conference in Montreal on May 25–31. forrest Stephanie Forrest, director of the Biodesign Center for Biocomputing, Security and Society and professor in the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering, coauthored a paper awarded “Ten-Year Most Influential Paper” by the International Conference on Software Engineering. Download Full Image

The award is presented at each ICSE meeting to the authors of the paper from the ICSE meeting 10 years prior “that is judged to have had the most influence on the theory or practice of software engineering during the 10 years since its original publication.” Forrest’s paper has been cited more than 553 times.

“Automatically Finding Patches Using Genetic Programming” opened the door to a new way of thinking about debugging and automatic repair. Researchers at the University of Michigan, University of New Mexico and University of Virginia were Forrest’s co-authors.

“The award recognizes the role our paper played in stimulating a decade's worth of research into automated software repair; research that is just now starting to move into commercial use at companies like Facebook,” Forrest said.

Much like mutations occur in nature, “genetic programming” uses a population of programs formed by applying random mutations to the buggy code. The program variants are then tested against existing test suites, and in this way the population is evolved until a program that repairs the bug is found. The test suite ensures that the “repairs” don’t interfere with existing functionality while correcting for the detected issue.

Once a candidate patch for the bug is discovered, developers can go back and refine the automatically generated solutions to improve them. By giving human developers a head start on solving the problem at hand, the amount of time spent on manual debugging can be drastically reduced. Experimental results published in the paper showed that 63,000 lines from 10 different C programs (programming language) were typically repaired in less than 200 seconds, without requiring special program annotations or prior knowledge about the type of bug.

Forrest and her colleagues have continued to find ways to improve upon their original ideas and find new uses for them, such as finding variants of programs that run with reduced energy costs compared with the original. 

“The surprising success of our initial work has led us to ask questions about how software is produced and evolved over time, focusing on the very biology-like properties that software seems to have acquired,” Forrest said.

Forrest, a professor in the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering, said it is “gratifying to be recognized by the leading conference in software engineering,” especially since the team’s approach to removing the human element from the repair process is considered controversial.

Forrest’s center uses a biological lens to solve a variety of computational problems, including how malicious behavior emerges in many complex systems. For example, viruses and cancer exploit the reproductive mechanisms of host cells to replicate and spread; bullies use intimidation to exert power, violating social norms; investors are duped by numerous schemes to manipulate financial markets; and cybercriminals exploit software vulnerabilities, eroding trust in networked systems. Successful systems develop effective defenses to counter these attacks.

Forrest will accept the award together with with her co-authors, Wes Weimer, ThanhVu Nguyen and Claire Le Goues.

The award is jointly sponsored by the Association for Computing Machinery/SIGSOFT and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Technical Council on Software Engineering 

This research was supported in part by National Science Foundation Grants CNS 0627523 and CNS 0716478, Air Force Office of Scientific Research grant FA9550-07-1-0532, as well as gifts from Microsoft Research.

EPICS Elite Pitch Competition expands impact of student projects

May 16, 2019

The Engineering Projects in Community Service program, better known as EPICS, in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University provides students the knowledge, funding and opportunity to work on real projects with actual clients who are facing social or environmental problems. Through these projects, students gain real-world experience and acquire skills that are highly valued when they enter the job market.

This year, the Fulton Schools held the first ever EPICS Elite Pitch Competition with a total of eight teams selected to compete out of the more than 40 EPICS projects currently in progress. Each team developed a five-minute pitch detailing their solution, its implementation, and their plans to grow and scale their ideas. Three students test water quality Water in Peru team members (from left to right) Samantha Stone, Daniel Hoop and Brett Goldsmith examine water quality. This EPICS team, which is working to solve the global problem of water purification monitoring, earned first place and $1,500 at the first EPICS Elite Pitch Competition. Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU Download Full Image

“The EPICS Elite Pitch Competition was created to allow student teams an opportunity to obtain additional funding to implement their solutions, which will create value and provide a positive impact on the communities they are working with,” says Jared Schoepf, EPICS director of operations and lecturer.

The first-place team, Water in Peru, was awarded $1,500; the second-place team, Shonto Pump Track, was awarded $1,000; and the third-place team, Bridge2Africa, received $500.

Water in Peru

The Water in Peru team is working to solve the global problem of monitoring chlorine concentrations for disinfecting water. They are developing a continuous and autonomous chlorine disinfection system alongside 33 Buckets. The Water in Peru team’s system utilizes chlorine tablets to remove E. coli bacteria from reservoirs that provide drinking water to communities in Peru.

“Chlorine disinfection requires a consistent, precise dose to be effective against bacterial contamination over time,” says Daniel Hoop, an environmental engineering major and the Water in Peru team lead. “The primary goal of our system is to make the dosing of chlorine in drinking water systems more user-friendly.”

In order to improve usability, the team designed and prototyped a tablet chlorination system that contains an adjustable ball valve to change chlorine exposure to water flowing into a community’s reservoir.

The second aspect of the system is automatic monitoring of residual chlorine levels.

“Residual chlorine is the parameter set by the World Health Organization to confirm that drinking water is safe to consume after disinfection,” explains Hoop. “Currently, many communities lack the resources and training to properly test for residual chlorine. As a result, we are working on a sensor that continuously and automatically tests for the residual chlorine level in water without the need for reagents.”

The sensor is completely solar powered and compact; it can fit in a lunch-box-sized encasing. The goal of the sensor is to supplement manual water quality testing with remote monitoring through data collection. To confirm the effectiveness of the system, the team created a manual testing training that they will also provide to community members. 

Hoop says that he worked with 33 Buckets because of the alignment of the project’s mission and the organization’s origins as a former EPICS project.

“The EPICS program provides a platform for undergraduates to work through the engineering design process with a community partner on an actual solution for a client,” says Hoop. “The program provides support in the form of advisers, prototyping labs and funding opportunities to allow for projects to manifest into real-world solutions.” 

three people posing next to lakefront

Students (from left to right) Brett Goldsmith, Samantha Stone and Daniel Hoop show a prototype of their autonomous chlorine disinfection system created as part of the Engineering Projects in Community Service program. The Water in Peru team earned first place in the EPICS Elite Pitch Competition. Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU

Water in Peru team members

• Daniel Hoop, environmental engineering

• Samantha Stone, environmental engineering

• Zachary Kobza, civil engineering

• Brett Goldsmith, engineering (electrical systems)

• Mauro Robles, biomedical engineering

• Dev Patel, chemical engineering

group of people sitting around a desk

Students (from left to right) Aly Carlson, Alexander Owen, Emma Pedersen, Christian Messner, Danielle Seedon and Jocelyn Zaman show off a model of a mountain biking pump track they designed for the Navajo Nation community of Shonto as part of the Engineering Projects in Community Service program. The Shonto Pump Track team earned second place at the EPICS Elite Pitch Competition. Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU

Shonto Pump Track

The Navajo Nation is currently facing a public health crisis and community leaders want to incorporate some form of physical exercise that will promote a healthy lifestyle in the community.

The Shonto Pump Track team is partnering with the community of Shonto on the Navajo Nation to use mountain biking as a way to provide economic development and promote public health by creating mountain bike pump tracks.

Pump tracks are looped trails with small hills riders maneuver to gain momentum and propel themselves forward without pedaling. This technique is called “pumping.”

“We have built a pump track at the local elementary school and are in the process of building a larger one at the community center,” says Aly Carlson, a chemical engineering major. “These pump tracks give the students a place to learn mountain biking skills while helping address the public health crisis.”

The team is also building mountain biking trails that they hope will bring tourists to the town.

“They will be able to grow their economy in the form of restaurants, hotels, bike shops and other service industries,” says Carlson. “This would allow people to work close to home and their families. We have mapped out a 12-mile trail and are waiting on land rights before we can move forward with building.” 

Carlson, who has been working on this project for three years, says she has a personal connection to the project.

“I started working on this project because I love biking and being outdoors,” says Carlson. “I liked this project because I saw it as an opportunity to help a large group of people and make an impact.”

Shonto Pump Track team members

• Aly Carlson, chemical engineering

• Danielle Seddon, mechanical engineering

• Alexander Owen, civil engineering

• Christian Messner, mechanical engineering

• Jocelyn Zaman, computer systems engineering

• Kinshuk Agrawal, computer science

• Emma Pedersen, aerospace engineering

group of students sitting around desk

Students (from left to right) Nadia Jafar, Robert Lattus, Abbey Jansen, Philipe Adriane Inocencio and Rajat Arora show a prototype of a device that converts online text on a webpage to Braille. This project was part of the Engineering Projects in Community Service team Bridge2Africa, which earned third place at the EPICS Elite Pitch Competition. Photographer: Erika Gronek/ASU


The Bridge2Africa team is working to convert internet text to Braille to help bring online access to students at the Sibonile Schools for the Visually Impaired in South Africa.

“Our solution uses a software and hardware approach to allow students who are visually impaired to navigate the internet,” says Rajat Arora, an electrical engineering major. 

The next steps for the team include designing and prototyping the hardware portion of their solution, which includes a physical Braille display.

“Our software portion revolves around building a screen reader from scratch that parses through webpages,” says Arora. “This allows the user to decide whether the text is ready via audio feedback or through the Braille keyboard.”

Arora explains the members of the Bridge2Africa team all wanted to get involved in an EPICS project for the same reason: They wanted to contribute to an idea they could see implemented by the end of their college careers.

“As we progress through our engineering majors, we noticed that nearly everyone is the same: we all take the same classes, have the same technical skills and apply for the same internships,” says Arora. “At the end of the day, we wanted to be able to see an idea to the end that we had a significant impact on, and see a community prosper from it.”

Bridge2Africa team members

• Rajat Arora, electrical engineering

• Nadia Jafar, computer systems engineering

• Abbey Jansen, chemical engineering

• Phillippe Adriane Inocencio, computer systems engineering

• Robert Lattus, electrical engineering

These projects represent only three of the student-led endeavors developed to solve problems around the world. Fulton Schools students have been participating in EPICS projects since 2009 when ASU joined a consortium of 20 universities in the nationwide EPICS program.
Erik Wirtanen

Web content comm administrator, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering