Computer Software That Writes Itself

Software is a messy business. Last March the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation publicly abandoned a $170 million software overhaul because of unforeseen technical problems. Even when big projects go well, they often take so long to complete that the software is out of date by the time it's rolled out. Corporations often don't bother to upgrade obsolete software for fear that they're opening a can of worms. As software gets more elaborate and complex, the problem only gets worse.

The situation has triggered interest in using computer programs to generate other programs automatically. The benefits of automatic software are compelling. Companies would need fewer programmers and could ratchet up productivity. Humans writing computer code are also prone to errors. "If a programmer can sit down, specify what you want and push a button, you end up much more productive," says Doug Smith, a researcher at the Kestrel Institute, a nonprofit RD center in Palo Alto, California. "It's the next stage in the evolution of computer programming."

One automatic programming tool has already made it into the financial marketplace. SciComp, based in Austin, Texas, has developed a product that helps investment banks design programs to price financial derivatives. It takes complex mathematical models and translates them into something a computer can solve, allowing banks to flexibly change pricing models as they introduce new products and guidelines.

Excerpted from an article that appeared in Newsweek International.