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Looking to Nature For Smarter Software Systems

By Irish Independent

June 8, 2009

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Mike Hinchey, the director of the NASA Software Engineering Laboratory and co-director of the Irish Software Engineering Research Centre, says that software engineering is in the middle of a crisis. He says developers are building bigger systems that are more advanced and have greater functionality than previous systems without making fundamental changes to the software engineering process. Users trust these systems to be self-managing, but they are being modified using standard practices, which Hinchey says creates the dangerous potential that software systems will not be able to keep pace with other technological advancements.

The software aboard extraterrestrial explorers is an example of the advanced systems being used. If the software encounters a problem, even if it sends a message back to Earth, it would take 40 minutes to receive the message, by which time it may be too late. Consequently, the software needs to be able to identify and execute a solution on its own. Hinchey has been working on swarm machines for space exploration, which involves sending out numerous small machines, instead of a single large one, which makes the mission far more likely to succeed. However, these swarms require different coordination and functionality skills. For example, if a swarm is sent out into space, about 60 percent to 70 percent is expected to be lost. As individual pieces are lost, the remaining machines need to calculate what they are capable of as a group, a type of computing known as autonomic computing or biologically-inspired computing.

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