A collaboration between ENEA, University of Bologna and Software Heritage set up the “Bologna Big Code Lab”, a joint laboratory of knowledge and experimentation aimed to develop new computer codes through innovative, automatic and safe methods. The project, sponsored by iFAB (International Foundation Big Data and Artificial Intelligence for Human Development), is based on the huge archive of Software Heritage, created under the aegis of UNESCO by the French institute INRIA (Institut National de Recherche en Informatique et en Automatique) a copy of which is hosted at the ENEA Research centre in Bologna. Over the next three years, automatic systems will be developed to produce new codes, in a fast and reliable way, by drawing on and aggregating source programmes that have already been catalogued and archived.
“Source codes are sequences of instructions that can be understood and changed by humans, but are executed by computers. They are found in computers and smartphones, they allow us to control satellites, to run websites and to operate most of the objects we deal with every day”, explained Simonetta Pagnutti from ENEA ICT Division, who represents the Agency in the Big Data Association.
In 2019, ENEA and INRIA signed an agreement to create the first European Institutional “mirror” of the Software Heritage archive, which has been collecting, storing and making accessible the source code of all publicly available software in the world since 2016.
“A project of great cultural, social and scientific importance sponsored, among other, by big companies including Microsoft, Intel and Google. Browsing through the nearly twelve billion files stored in the archive, you can come across the sixty-thousand-line code that drove the Apollo 11 onboard computer, bringing man to the moon 50 years ago. Or, you can browse inside “TAUmus, one of the first software programmes to be developed in the world in the 70’s on which computer music is based”, continues the researcher. “What we have replicated at the ENEA Centre in Bologna is a vital backup that makes the over 170 million archived projects accessible. Access to such a library, a true Alexandrian library of software, will allow researchers and scientists of the Agency and the University to study and analyse codes and algorithms, developing methods to obtain information and produce new knowledge. Thus, similarly to what happens with “Big Data”, we can talk about “Big Code”. This is a current trend, yet to be explored, but with great impact. This is a long-term line of research, destined to have a significant strategic value that opens up new opportunities for young researchers: codes are the key component of High Performance Computing, Artificial Intelligence and every digital application”, concluded Pagnutti.
The Bologna Big Code Lab is hosted at the Technopole of Bologna, headquarter of the Data Centre of the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF).
In addition to research work, the project includes various training and digital literacy activities to create greater awareness of the profound changes now taking place, which are related to the increasingly widespread use of new technologies.
The first communication event “Software Heritage, l’Archivio Universale dei Codici – Divagazioni sul tema” was held on 16 March at the Department of Computer Science of the University of Bologna, and directly involved 4 schools. The 1-day event focused on open source, new digital archives and codes, which play a key role in the digital revolution and are part of our cultural heritage that needs to be preserved and protected. Some of the codes that have changed the world were presented and an award was handed out to participants who gave the most original and brilliant reasons to the question addressed in the contest “Which is your favourite code, which one would you protect for posterity?”.
The event also hosted Roberto di Cosmo, Full Professor of Computer Science at the Diderot University of Paris, who is the Director and Founder of the Software Heritage world infrastructure.