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DARPA is Working on Software That Can Last a Century

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DARPA is Working on Software That Can Last a Century
DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, recently solicited what it called “innovative research proposals in the areas of formal methods, program analysis, compiler design, and runtime and virtual machine implementation to realize tools for the construction of long-lived, survivable, and scalable adaptive software systems” (1).

The project, called BRASS, or Building Resource Adaptive Software Systems, is designed to create computer systems that evolve on their own as hardware and interactive software changes.

Gizmag notes that computer software becomes obsolete with depressing regularity (2). Anyone who owns a PC or a laptop can attest to that, particularly one that runs on Windows. Just the previous year, Microsoft stopped supporting Windows XP and forced users to upgrade to more advanced versions of the iconic operating system.

On a higher level, whether one is running a missile tracking network or a complex financial analysis system, software upgrades can be expensive and time consuming.

A bank or brokerage house had to run the upgraded software parallel to the old software for systems testing. The real nail-biter for information systems workers is when the new system goes live. Will it work with all the hardware and software interfaces that interact with it? What about backwards compatibility?

As software becomes obsolete, data can be inaccessible, and communications with other systems can become impossible. The documentation for some of these old systems can be sketchy at best.

National Security

It gets worse when the software in question runs something that is vital for national security. “Even when updates are available, installing and configuring them is costly both in terms of money and time as the problems of backwards compatibility and degraded interoperability in military systems becomes more apparent.”

BRASS is a four-year project designed to create software that can, in essence, upgrade itself. According to Military and Aerospace Electronics (3), the project will:

“–make fundamental advances in the design of survivable, long-lived complex software systems that are robust to changes in the logical or physical resources of their operational environments.

“DARPA scientists would like to integrate new linguistic abstractions, scalable and compositional formal methods, and resource-aware program analyses to discover and specify the application intent of the original software programmers.

“DARPA also is interested in program transformations triggered to adapt applications to resource changes, as well as new systems designs to monitor software ecosystem behavior. BRASS seeks new approaches to enable automated discovery of relationships between computations and the resources they use, along with techniques to incorporate algorithms built in response to ecosystem changes.”


How It Works

What this means in English is that the adaptive software would sense when it has been loaded into a more advanced computer, when a new operating system is created, or when it finds itself interacting with new systems on a network.

Then it will rewrite itself with only a minimal involvement of a human programmer. Gone will be the days when a software upgrade would take many months, potentially millions of dollars, and would be prone to programmer error.

In theory, such a software system could last a hundred years or more without having to be entirely replaced. The software that runs military devices would continue to run, making sure those devices continue to work without having humans intervene to produce upgrades.

Of course, people familiar with science fiction might argue that there is a downside to this kind of software that upgrades itself.

Fictional computers such as HAL, Colossus, and Skynet have entertained movie audiences the world over by evolving so much that they become self-aware and hostile to their human creators. One suspects that the IT people working on BRASS will keep this possibility in mind when writing adaptive computer systems.

References & Image Credits:
(1) FBO
(2) Giz Mag
(3) Military Aerospace

Originally published on

United States Military

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Mark R. Whittington, from Houston, Texas, frequently writes on space, science, political commentary and political culture.

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