The Exterminators

A small British firm shows that software bugs aren’t inevitable

13 min read
Photo of Peter Amey [left] and Roderick Chapman.

Checking Code: At Praxis, Peter Amey (left) and Roderick Chapman use mathematical logic to make sure their programs do not contain errors.

Photo: Peter Searle

Peter Amey was an aeronautical engineer serving in the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force in the early 1980s when he found a serious flaw in an aircraft missile-control system being deployed at the time. It wasn’t a defect in any of the thousands of mechanical and electronic parts that constituted the system’s hardware. The problem was in the system’s software. Amey found an erroneous piece of program code—a bug [see photo, “Checking Code”]. Because of it, the unthinkable could happen: under rare circumstances, a missile could fire without anyone’s having commanded it to do so.

Amey says his superiors, rather than commending his discovery, complained that it would delay the system’s deployment. Like most project managers, they didn’t like the idea of fixing errors at the end of the development process. After all, good design ought to keep errors out in the first place. Yet time and again, Amey knew, the software development process didn’t prevent bugs; it merely put off dealing with them until the end. Did it have to be that way? Or could developers avoid bugs in the first place? He would find the answer to be “yes” when, years later, he joined Praxis High Integrity Systems [see photo, “Bug Killer”].

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A rendering of a lunar base. In the foreground are rows of solar panels and behind them are two astronauts standing in front of a glass dome with plants inside.
P. Carril/ESA

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