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Communications of the ACM

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Are You Sure Your Software Will Not Kill Anyone?


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sinking ship and other disasters, illustration

Credit: Andrij Borys Associates, Shutterstock

From what I have seen, heard, and read, confusion and misinformation abound about software and safety. I have worked in this area for nearly 40 years, starting around the time when computers were beginning to be introduced into the control of safety-critical systems. I want to share what I have learned. Too many incorrect beliefs are being promoted, which are inhibiting progress and, in some cases, unnecessarily costing lives. This column clarifies this topic so that the solutions we propose are more likely to have a significant impact on safety.

With only a few exceptions, software was not used to directly control safety-critical systems until approximately 1980, although it was used to provide computational power for complex systems, such as spacecraft. Direct control was very limited, but the hesitation has now almost completely disappeared and software is used to control most systems, including physical systems that could involve potentially large and even catastrophic losses.


 

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