Perfect is the enemy of good: Best-effort program synthesis

Hila Peleg, Nadia Polikarpova

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contributionpeer-review


Program synthesis promises to help software developers with everyday tasks by generating code snippets automatically from input-output examples and other high-level specifications. The conventional wisdom is that a synthesizer must always satisfy the specification exactly. We conjecture that this all-or-nothing paradigm stands in the way of adopting program synthesis as a developer tool: in practice, the user-written specification often contains errors or is simply too hard for the synthesizer to solve within a reasonable time; in these cases, the user is left with a single over-fitted result or, more often than not, no result at all. In this paper we propose a new program synthesis paradigm we call best-effort program synthesis, where the synthesizer returns a ranked list of partially-valid results, i.e. programs that satisfy some part of the specification. To support this paradigm, we develop best-effort enumeration, a new synthesis algorithm that extends a popular program enumeration technique with the ability to accumulate and return multiple partially-valid results with minimal overhead. We implement this algorithm in a tool called Bester, and evaluate it on 79 synthesis benchmarks from the literature. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, our evaluation shows that Bester returns useful results even when the specification is flawed or too hard: i) for all benchmarks with an error in the specification, the top three Bester results contain the correct solution, and ii) for most hard benchmarks, the top three results contain non-trivial fragments of the correct solution. We also performed an exploratory user study, which confirms our intuition that partially-valid results are useful: the study shows that programmers use the output of the synthesizer for comprehension and often incorporate it into their solutions.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication34th European Conference on Object-Oriented Programming, ECOOP 2020
EditorsRobert Hirschfeld, Tobias Pape
ISBN (Electronic)9783959771542
StatePublished - 1 Nov 2020
Externally publishedYes
Event34th European Conference on Object-Oriented Programming, ECOOP 2020 - Virtual, Berlin, Germany
Duration: 15 Nov 202017 Nov 2020

Publication series

NameLeibniz International Proceedings in Informatics, LIPIcs


Conference34th European Conference on Object-Oriented Programming, ECOOP 2020
CityVirtual, Berlin


  • Program synthesis
  • Programming by example

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Software


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