Penn engineers participate in two $10 million projects

Anyone who has used a computer can attest to the massive strides software has made over the last few decades. But those on the programming side—the people who create computer software—have had a different experience.

“What it means to ‘code’ hasn’t changed much in the last 20 to 30 years,” says Rajeev Alur, a professor in the Department of Computer and Information Science in the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS). “It’s still done by expert programmers and is quite time-consuming, expensive, and error-prone.”

Alur is aiming to simplify computer programming with a five-year, $10 million project funded by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Expeditions in Computing program. The project is dubbed “ExCAPE” for Expeditions in Computer Augmented Program Engineering.

Alur will lead a team of researchers from Penn and eight other institutions in a quest to make computer programming faster, easier, and more intuitive. The Penn contingent includes fellow SEAS professors Milo Martin, Boon Thau Loo, George Pappas, and Steve Zdancewic.

The ExCAPE team envisions programming as a collaboration between human programmers and computers; Alur says they will produce a “synthesis tool kit” that will help combine the strengths of both.

Writing a program for a self-parking car, for example, might involve human programmers providing the step-by-step framework for maneuvering into a space, and a computer filling in the tricky details of exactly when to turn the wheel and by how much.

To see how well ExCAPE’s synthesis tools work on real-world problems, the project will involve prominent partners in industry, including AT&T, Honeywell, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Coverity, a software-testing company, and robotics developer Willow Garage.

The Expeditions in Computing program is the NSF’s largest investment in computer science, funding the most ambitious and far-reaching research in the field.

Penn is also a partner in another $10 million Expeditions project announced this year. Engineering’s Vijay Kumar, Sanjeev Khanna, Insup Lee, and Andre DeHon will join researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University in developing a new way to design and build robots. These robots have bodies that are printed on flat sheets of material and folded together, making them highly flexible and customizable.