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Predicting Program Properties from 'Big Code'

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We present a new approach for predicting program properties from large codebases (aka "Big Code"). Our approach learns a probabilistic model from "Big Code" and uses this model to predict properties of new, unseen programs.

The key idea of our work is to transform the program into a representation that allows us to formulate the problem of inferring program properties as structured prediction in machine learning. This enables us to leverage powerful probabilistic models such as Conditional Random Fields (CRFs) and perform joint prediction of program properties.

As an example of our approach, we built a scalable prediction engine called JSNICE for solving two kinds of tasks in the context of JavaScript: predicting (syntactic) names of identifiers and predicting (semantic) type annotations of variables. Experimentally, JSNICE predicts correct names for 63% of name identifiers and its type annotation predictions are correct in 81% of cases. Since its public release at, JSNice has become a popular system with hundreds of thousands of uses.

By formulating the problem of inferring program properties as structured prediction, our work opens up the possibility for a range of new "Big Code" applications such as de-obfuscators, decompilers, invariant generators, and others.

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1. Introduction

Recent years have seen significant progress in the area of programming languages driven by advances in type systems, constraint solving, program analysis, and synthesis techniques. Fundamentally, these methods reason about each program in isolation and while powerful, the effectiveness of programming tools based on these techniques is approaching its inherent limits. Thus, a more disruptive change is needed if a significant improvement is to take place.

At the same time, creating probabilistic models from large datasets (also called "Big Data") has transformed a number of areas such as natural language processing, computer vision, recommendation systems, and many others. However, despite the overwhelming success of "Big Data" in a variety of application domains, learning from large datasets of programs has previously not had tangible impact on programming tools. Yet, with the tremendous growth of publicly available source code in repositories such as GitHub4 and BitBucket2 (referred to as "Big Code" by a recent DARPA initiative11) comes the opportunity to create new kinds of programming tools based on probabilistic models of such data. The vision is that by leveraging the massive effort already spent in developing millions of programs, such tools will have the ability to solve tasks beyond the reach of traditional techniques. However, effectively learning from programs is a challenge. One reason is that programs are data transformers with complex semantics that should be captured and preserved in the learned probabilistic model.


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