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Communications of the ACM


Hacker-Proof Coding

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At the University of Washington (UW) Medical Center, a radiotherapy system shoots high-powered radiation beams into the heads of patients, to treat cancers of the tongue and esophagus. Any software errors in the system could prove fatal, so engineers at the medical center have teamed with a group of computer scientists from the university to ensure the system will not fail, and that the beam will shut off if prescribed settings go out of tolerance.

This is made possible by a process known as software verification, and verifying implementations of critical systems like that radiotherapy setup is one of the things about which Zachary Tatlock is passionate. Over three years ago, Tatlock was a Ph.D. candidate giving a talk at the university on his thesis research in program verification. The lead engineer for the medical center's radiotherapy team was in the audience, and asked Tatlock how they could apply verification to that system. "That probably helped me get hired," Tatlock recalls. Today, he's an assistant professor of computer science at the university and, with other colleagues and students at UW, has also been working with the team at the medical center ever since.


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