Are programmers soon to become extinct?
by Prof Barry Dwolatzky
The discussion at this week’s JCSE “Architecture Forum” got me thinking about the future of programming. Some of the software architects present seem to believe quite strongly that the art of writing a computer program – something I’ve been doing since the early 1970’s – will soon be automated. Images of the recent fossil discoveries by scientists from my own University flashed into my mind. Will palaeontologists of the future display the fossilised remains of the long extinct “Computer Programmer”?
Programming is about abstraction. At the heart of the computer – or “programmable device” – is some low level binary machine code. Some of us may have learnt to craft these instructions by hand at some point in our careers, but since the 1960’s programmers have worked at a higher level of abstraction. The so-called “general-purpose languages” – FORTRAN, Cobol, C, Java and C# – allow the programmer to focus on relatively high-level issues when translating a design into a program. Using these languages we write our programs using assignments, loops and conditionals. Various structuring mechanisms have been introduced to help us deal with complexity. These include functions, procedures, classes and methods. Libraries of reusable functions and classes have also long been available to simplify the task of programming.
At a level of abstraction higher than these general-purpose languages are domain-specific specialised languages. Do we still use the term ‘4th generation languages” – or 4GL? These languages allow the programmer to think about the problem to be solved at a higher level. While these certainly gained some level of adoption, millions of computer programmers around the world still develop software using languages like C, C++ and Java.
In the 1990’s the concept of “model-driven development” appeared. Programs were designed using a modelling language like UML and tools were then used to automatically generate programs in the language of choice. These generated programs were in fact structured shells – a programmer still had to write a lot of C++ or Java code. The UML tools did not automate the detailed programming, but rather the high-level structuring.
The discussion at the Architecture Forum centred around architectural representations. Some of these are at higher levels of abstraction than the detailed design expressed in UML. The issue raised was this: Using modern architectural representation notations the “business rules” of the required software can be captured. Is it possible now, or will it soon be possible, to automatically generate running software from these representations? If this is possible and becomes widespread the computer programmer as we know him/her will become extinct.
My own view is that this will not happen – at least in the foreseeable future. The work of writing the detailed steps of a program is best done by a skilled human programmer. The variation and complexity of detailed programming does not lend itself to machine automation. But maybe I’m just a dinosaur of the information age refusing to accept my own imminent extinction!!??