Computer Science Professor Andreas Zeller receives Europe’s most prestigious research award

Andreas Zeller, professor for software engineering at Saarland University in Germany has obtained an ERC Advanced Grant, the highest research award of the European Union. The funding will comprise of up to 2.3 million EUR over the next five years. With this award, computer scientist Andreas Zeller will explore the underlying principles of large software systems – knowledge that will be used to automatically validate and verify critical computer systems in banking, social networks, or aviation.

Saarland computer scientist Andreas Zeller is best known for his work on automated debugging – that is, to automatically find causes for software failures within millions of lines of program code. „A big challenge in debugging is to identify what makes a bug. Programs must not crash – that’s easy. But what is the ‘correct’ behavior of banking software or of a plane?”, says Andreas Zeller. In recent years, computer scientists have developed several techniques to automatically validate software behavior – by means of testing or mathematical proofs. “However, this requires one to specify what ‘correct’ behavior means in the first place. And since such specifications must be mathematically precise and complete, producing them can be just as hard and error-prone as programming itself”, Zeller explains.

To help developers in their work, Zeller wants to extract specifications from existing systems – automatically: “Our approach automatically tests software to systematically explore its behavior. From its observations, it learns patterns and builds hypotheses – and eventually generates a comprehensive specification of the software’s behavior”. This is the more important since the original specification may never have existed – or may long be lost with the original software creators. “Old software is like the pyramids: we must explore, probe, and investigate to understand their principles. Once we extract the knowledge encoded into these artifacts, we can use it to maintain and rebuild them without violating their original assumptions – leading to better, reliable, and long-lasting software”, Zeller says.

The ERC Advanced Grant is the highest research award of the European Union – and the most coveted: In this year, 2,284 researchers throughout Europe applied for funding; only about 12 percent of the grants were accepted. Andreas Zeller is the first researcher at Saarland University to obtain this prestigious award; he also is the first researcher in Germany to win an ERC Advanced Grant in the domain of Computer science and Informatics. Two years ago, Saarland computer scientist Michael Backes received a one million EUR ERC Starting Grant aiming at young researchers under the age of 35.

With the award of up to 2.3 million EUR, Zeller will hire fund about ten PhD students and post-doctoral researchers. In the next five years, they will be working in the new project named SPECMATE (“Specification Mining and Testing”) to explore the principles of software systems.

Prof. Dr. Andreas Zeller
Saarland University – Computer Science
Saarbrücken, Germany
Tel. +49 681/302-70971

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