Gabriele Bavota, Assistant Professor at the USI Software Institute (SI), is among the recipients of the latest ERC Starting Grants, the research funds awarded by the European Research Council on a highly competitive basis to the most promising young researchers active in Europe. Prof. Bavota was chosen for his project DEVINTA, which aims to turn into reality what only a few years ago would have seemed something for a distant future: providing software developers with an artificial assistant able to interact with them in an intelligent and proactive way, being aware of the specifics of software development, and becoming a sort of ’real’ member of the development team.
Modern software systems are extremely complex and are among the most elaborate - and creative - artifacts produced by human beings. Their development can only pass through the collective work of several people, and it is unlikely that a single developer has the knowledge required to understand, maintain, and evolve all the components of a system. The obvious solution in these cases is to ask for help from another team member who, however, may not always have a solution at hand.
A leap forward with the help of artificial intelligence
This issue has been addressed by so-called "recommender systems", in the form of applications that can provide useful information in a given context, for example by suggesting documentation aimed at simplifying the understanding of a code component.
"These systems, however, cannot be considered valid substitutes for a team member: they are not proactive, they do not consider the profile of the developer (e.g., knowledge, past experiences), and they are unable to answer specific questions of the developer", explains Gabriele Bavota. "The goal of the DEVINTA project is to make a leap forward with the help of artificial intelligence, introducing models and techniques to create the basis of the first artificial assistant for software developers".
The artificial assistant will help developers understand unfamiliar code by translating it into natural language, write code more quickly by inferring the developer’s intentions and completing the code automatically, and improve quality by performing real-time checks (i.e., when the code is written by the developer) in order to identify bugs and sub-optimal implementation choices and provide a viable alternative. The assistant will use advanced conversation interfaces that will allow the developer to ask explicit questions, even about technical aspects of the code, that the assistant will try to answer.
An emerging research area for USI
The ERC Starting Grant for DEVINTA comes just over a year after another significant award earned by Prof. Bavota for his scientific research in the field of software, the Early Career Research Award of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) - read more about it here.
As Prof. Michele Lanza, director of the USI Software Institute, points out, "the ERC Starting Grant for Gabriele Bavota, which adds to the ERC Advanced Grant of Paolo Tonella, confirms and encourages the important research work that is conducted at our Institute and the USI Faculty of Informatics. In the field of software engineering, USI is making waves, to the extent that it is now considered one of the best universities in the field, as noted - among others - by the CSRankings" - read more about it here.
Since 2007, the European Research Council (ERC) has supported the most innovative and creative researchers in identifying and exploring new opportunities and directions in all fields of scientific research through the prestigious ERC Grants, awarded on a competitive basis to acknowledge and encourage cutting-edge scientific research - more information here.
The ERC Starting Grants represent the first phase of the ERC funding programme. They are designed to support early-stage researchers who stand out for their potential. In the 2019 ERC Starting Grants call for proposals, 3106 applications were submitted, of which only 408 (about 13%) were accepted, allowing researchers of 51 nationalities to conduct their research in 24 European countries. Thirty-one of these funds are allocated to research projects carried out in Switzerland.
The full list of recipients of the latest ERC Starting Grants is available at:
20 ERC Grants for USI
To date, researchers active or already active at USI and its affiliated institutions have earned 20 ERCs in total (Starting Grant, Consolidator Grant, Advanced Grant, Proof of Concept, Sinergy Grants), 12 of which in research carried out at the USI Faculty of Informatics - see the full list here.