Prof. Tegawende Bissyande; Credit: University of Luxembourg

Professor Tegawendé F. Bissyandé from the University of Luxembourg’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Security, Reliability and Trust (SnT) has been awarded the prestigious Starting Grant by the European Research Council (ERC) for his project NATURAL.

Prof. Bissyandé will receive €1.5 million to conduct research in software repair for five years. His project will explore how language processing can be combined with other advanced machine learning technologies to create an artificial intelligence (AI) bot that will debug software automatically. 

Software is a vital element of the EU economy, with the entire market for software and software-based services valued at almost €300 billion. This makes programming errors (and the subsequent software failures) a critical issue for companies, because of the repair costs and lost revenues, and for the public, because of the impact on GDP. A study by Tricentis, a software testing company, estimates that software bugs caused $1.7 trillion in lost revenue in the anglophone world in 2017 alone. Yet, even before revenue is lost due to a serious public software glitch, developers spend an estimated 50% to 80% of their time testing and fixing the software, resulting in billions of euros in up-front costs. 

This is the focus of Prof. Bissyandé’s project. His target is bug reports that come from users. Since users submit reports in a natural language, such as English, French or German, software developers must still process the reports manually, using significant amounts of their time. Instead, Prof. Bissyandé intends to develop natural language processing technology to make it possible to be used for software repairs. Once this has been achieved his research project will push even further, to develop a system based on AI technology that will process a developer’s code systematically and automatically debug it as it is written, reducing the amount of bugs that make it into the final software. Conducting this research at SnT is expected to be beneficial for the final outcome, as SnT’s many collaborations with industrial partners will give Prof. Bissyandé the opportunity to test and validate his work on real systems.

ERC Starting Grants are prestigious awards for young researchers with less than seven years of experience who have built excellent scientific credentials. This is the first time a researcher at SnT has received a Starting Grant and the fourth ERC grant for the research centre. The others included three ERC Advanced Grants, grants for researchers in a later stage of their careers, who have achieved significant research outcomes. Only 13% of applications for the Starting Grant were accepted in this round of funding.

“The unique thing about ERC funding is that it makes it possible for me to create a team of people who will work together on the same project at the same time and build up international standing on a key research topic,” commented Prof. Bissyandé. “An ERC grant is very meaningful for the entire scientific community as I will have the latitude to explore and discover new avenues of research during this project. I will open doors and even if I don’t get to visit all the rooms, other researchers will then come after to explore them further”. 

 Prof. Björn Ottersten, Director of SnT, added: “Prof. Bissyandé joined SnT as a promising young researcher in 2013 and has been instrumental to many of SnT’s successful research projects and industry partnerships. Receiving an ERC Starting Grant is very meaningful as it shows how committed we are to the career development of our researchers. SnT is a unique place to start a career because we encourage scientific independence and offer a support structure that fosters the potential of everyone in our team”.