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One for all and all for one –

New EU project sets out to develop intelligent computer systems

Munich, 10/11/2010

One for all and all for one – It’s a motto that holds for musketeers and for teams of all sorts. But a new EU project at LMU Munich intends to make sure that, in future, the slogan will also be applicable to computer systems. The goal of the ASCENS (Autonomic Service-Component Ensembles) project is to develop ensembles of programs that are sufficiently flexible and self-contained to enable them to adapt autonomously to diverse contexts and demands, and so adopt the best possible configuration for the task in hand. “The basic idea is that future software should be so designed that it can adapt to the needs of the individual user and reconfigure itself automatically to meet the demands of novel situations and environments, without having to be reinstalled from scratch”, says the coordinator of the project, Professor Martin Wirsing, Chair of the Institute of Programming and Software Engineering at LMU. In collaboration with his partners in the project, Wirsing will, among other things, be developing a common programming language and a common platform that enable the subsystems of a component ensemble to communicate with one another. The ASCENS project is designed to combine, for the first time, such practical considerations with theoretical investigations of the optimal basis for ensemble-based architectures. The four-year project involves twelve research institutions and commercial firms located in five EU countries and Switzerland. Representatives of all participating entities will attend the kick-off meeting, which will be held at LMU on 11-13 October.

Conventional methods for the design of software are not well-suited for the development of ensembles. The current paradigm is based on the assumption that the developers are in possession of all relevant information – about the environment in which the new system will operate for instance – and can take this data into account in defining their design criteria. Software components are constructed so as to perform certain routines, irrespective of the wider significance of these tasks and how they contribute to the function of the system as a whole. The result is a system that is incapable of adapting to novel demands.

A new, EU-funded, interdisciplinary project named ASCENS intends to change all that. One of the major challenges facing developers of program ensembles is how to enable autonomous software components to link up into meaningful networks, interact in complex ways and produce a wide repertoire of behavior patterns. Recent advances in several related fields suggest that this challenge can now be effectively met. New service components must be developed, and new methods of communication and a new programming language designed and realized. At a more fundamental level, new formal methods, i.e. mathematically well-founded and proven procedures, need to be established which can provide the assurance that a system’s capacity for adaptation does not interfere with the performance of the basic tasks for which it was designed.

ASCENS has two major goals. One aim of the planned collaborations between researchers and design engineers is to achieve scientific breakthroughs for large-scale adaptive software systems. On the other hand, the project is designed to tackle very real problems. One possible application is the development of robot ensembles, whose members can act both autonomously and collectively. Such systems should be able to act together to overcome obstacles, for example. Professor Wirsing mentions one scenario in which they could be employed: ”Robot ensembles could be used in emergencies to complement the work of rescue teams by providing assistance to injured victims. The robots would have to be capable of reacting to a whole variety of unforeseen situations – without in any way endangering helpers or victims.“ The project coordinator hastens to add  that these are dreams of the future. However, the ASCENS project has funds for 4 years of work – enough time to make significant progress towards the realization of the project’s vision.

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