Interactive semi-automated specification mining for debugging: An experience report

Information and Software Technology Volume 113, September 2019, Pages 20-38

Also presented at ASE 2019’s journal-first presentations track.



Specification mining techniques are typically used to extract the specification of a software in the absence of (up-to-date) specification documents. This is useful for program comprehension, testing, and anomaly detection. However, specification mining can also potentially be used for debugging, where a faulty behavior is abstracted to give developers a context about the bug and help them locating it.


In this project, we investigate this idea in an industrial setting. We propose a very basic semi-automated specification mining approach for debugging and apply that on real reported issues from an AutoPilot software system from our industry partner, MicroPilot Inc. The objective is to assess the feasibility and usefulness of the approach in a real-world setting.


The approach is developed as a prototype tool, working on C code, which accept a set of relevant state fields and functions, per issue, and generates an extended finite state machine that represents the faulty behavior, abstracted with respect to the relevant context (the selected fields and functions).


We qualitatively evaluate the approach by a set of interviews (including observational studies) with the company’s developers on their real-world reported bugs. The results show that (a) our approach is feasible, (b) it can be automated to some extent, and (c) brings advantages over only using their code-level debugging tools. We also compared this approach with traditional fully automated state-merging algorithms and reported several issues when applying those techniques on a real-world debugging context.


The main conclusion of this study is that the idea of an “interactive” specification mining rather than a fully automated mining tool is NOT impractical and indeed is useful for the debugging use case.

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