Get Ready for Code That Repairs Code

Some MIT students just saved software corporations billions.


Like anything that changes over time, code is about evolution. Cut it open, and you’ll find the traces of its earlier forms. Buried in your software are the wisdom teeth and vestigial tails of what once worked and could work again. Digging those traces out can be a time-consuming process, and failing to exhume them can drown a company built on proprietary technology. That’s why, presumably, MIT is getting in the reverse-engineering game.

A group of researchers at the institute’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab were sick of dealing with the old code leftover in functional pieces of modern software like Photoshop, which has accumulated a mountain of now-irrelevant code during the past 25 years. Adobe has dedicated a huge amount of manpower to clean up, but that’s led mostly to Adobe dedicating more manpower to cleanup. The question posed by the researchers was this: Can code heal code?

Their solution is a system called Helium, which updates aging software in just hours, translating binary codes to high-level languages. It works by scanning for “stencil kernels,” the components that make up complicated algorithms, then replacing them with modern variations. That’s going to save a fortune in repair work, not to mention man hours.

Though it’s currently unclear how many companies would be interested in adopting this technology, there is a great deal of promise here. As software giants spend less time and money on cleanup, they’ll be empowered to invest in innovation, which has considerably more upside.

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