Software development and AI are set to change the way we work in 2020

Predicting the future is notoriously difficult, and experts are especially bad at it—but the future is unevenly distributed. Leading-edge activity in AI and software gives us a glimpse of where they might end up.

This is a contributed article by Mathew Lodge, CEO at Diffblue

Predicting the future is notoriously difficult, and experts are especially bad at it—but the future is unevenly distributed. Leading-edge activity in AI and software gives us a glimpse of where they might end up.

AI will eat more code

This year, we've seen a continued strong growth in cloud computing and AI as more businesses embark on their digital transformation journeys. Machine learning and other AI techniques make it possible to automate more processes than ever before. That said, Gartner has estimated that by 2021, demand for application development will grow five times faster than tech teams can deliver. Ironically, software has automated nearly every business process except the writing of software itself.

AI is eating software from many different angles. No-code/Low-code solutions have been around for years, but there's a new generation of platforms and approaches that allow non-coders—analysts, for example—to create work that previously would have required a programmer. Think of this as AI eating code from "the top down". Companies in this space include Data Robot and H2O.ai.

Bottom-up AI is now here as well. TabNine released a ML-driven autocompletion tool that suggests likely code completions derived from learning over large open source code repositories. In November, Microsoft released a similar tool for its Visual Studio Code IDE. Both of these seek to improve developer productivity.

At Diffblue, we released Cover, a tool that analyses your Java code base and uses AI to write unit tests that run quickly to find regressions early on in the development cycle. The key benefit here is having tests that enable customers to adopt Continuous Integration and deliver better quality software, faster. This is code a developer no longer has to write and maintain, because the unit tests for the next commit can always be regenerated from the current version of the application.

Writing secure code becomes more automated

In the last year, a third of businesses reported cyber security breaches. The UK government has announced plans to invest £36 million into making the UK a world leader in tackling cyber threats. As the threat landscape continues to expand and hackers become more sophisticated with their attacks, there will be greater pressure for businesses to ensure their applications are protected against vulnerabilities that could leave them open to cyberattacks.

The biggest data breaches have been as a result of compromised code, and although infrastructure can also be attacked, the applications themselves are a much larger surface area for attackers.

Semmle, a tool that analyses code so that it can be queried like a database and crowdsources vulnerability signatures, was acquired by GitHub (now part of Microsoft) for an undisclosed sum. Although there are several tools in this space, having one of them integrated into the world's most popular source code service is significant. Semmle makes it possible to automate large scale signature checking over code, and is the first step along a path to automated remediation. It'll be interesting to see what GitHub and Semmle do together.

Greater investment will be made into AI skills training

Recent research from Deloitte found that while 82% of large businesses in the UK are pursuing some form of AI initiative, only 15% can be considered ‘seasoned' or mature AI adopters. The rapid advancement of technology we are experiencing today is leaving organisations across many sectors struggling to attract and retain talent with the necessary skills to keep up.

To address this, a number of universities, organisations and institutes are already investing heavily in developing AI talent in the UK. In October 2019, the UK government announced a £370m package of government and industry investment into 14 universities and 200 businesses, including the NHS and Google, as well as training for 200 AI PhD students across 16 new centres for doctoral training. The government is also investing £13m in Masters programmes to help develop careers in AI, and a £10m fund for scholarships to help those from underrepresented communities access AI and data science education.

In 2020, we expect to see more of this type of investment. More businesses will see the need to bridge the technology skills gap, particularly with skills related to working with AI. This will be crucial in order for the country to remain at the forefront of technological advancement.

Building on what we already know

While the rise of data, the shortage of coding and AI skills and growing cyber threats are not new challenges, the way businesses approach them is changing. Advancements in AI are driving the rise of new automation tools that can democratise access to previously niche technology areas such as data science, coding and security. As a result, 2020 is likely to bring more innovation in the way organisations are using technology to transform work and to tackle some of their key business challenges.

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