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How could Neural Networks understand Programs?

Dinglan Peng · Shuxin Zheng · Yatao Li · Guolin Ke · Di He · Tie-Yan Liu

Keywords: [ Hardware and Systems ]


Semantic understanding of programs is a fundamental problem for programming language processing (PLP). Recent works that learn representations of code based on pre-training techniques in NLP have pushed the frontiers in this direction. However, the semantics of PL and NL have essential differences. These being ignored, we believe it is difficult to build a model to better understand programs, by either directly applying off-the-shelf NLP pre-training techniques to the source code, or adding features to the model by the heuristic. In fact, the semantics of a program can be rigorously defined by formal semantics in PL theory. For example, the operational semantics, describes the meaning of a valid program as updating the environment (i.e., the memory address-value function) through fundamental operations, such as memory I/O and conditional branching. Inspired by this, we propose a novel program semantics learning paradigm, that the model should learn from information composed of (1) the representations which align well with the fundamental operations in operational semantics, and (2) the information of environment transition, which is indispensable for program understanding. To validate our proposal, we present a hierarchical Transformer-based pre-training model called OSCAR to better facilitate the understanding of programs. OSCAR learns from intermediate representation (IR) and an encoded representation derived from static analysis, which are used for representing the fundamental operations and approximating the environment transitions respectively. OSCAR empirically shows the outstanding capability of program semantics understanding on many practical software engineering tasks. Code and models are released at: \url{}.

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