I call it my billion-dollar mistake. It was the invention of the null reference in 1965. At that time, I was designing the first comprehensive type system for references in an object oriented language (ALGOL W). My goal was to ensure that all use of references should be absolutely safe, with checking performed automatically by the compiler. But I couldn't resist the temptation to put in a null reference, simply because it was so easy to implement. This has led to innumerable errors, vulnerabilities, and system crashes, which have probably caused a billion dollars of pain and damage in the last forty years.
For many years under his leadership his Oxford department worked on formal specification languages such as CSP and Z. These did not achieve the expected take-up by industry, and in 1995 Hoare was led to reflect upon the original assumptions:
Ten years ago, researchers into formal methods (and I was the most mistaken among them) predicted that the programming world would embrace with gratitude every assistance promised by formalisation to solve the problems of reliability that arise when programs get large and more safety-critical. Programs have now got very large and very critical - well beyond the scale which can be comfortably tackled by formal methods. There have been many problems and failures, but these have nearly always been attributable to inadequate analysis of requirements or inadequate management control. It has turned out that the world just does not suffer significantly from the kind of problem that our research was originally intended to solve.
^Hoare, C. A. R. (1996). "Unification of Theories: A Challenge for Computing Science". Selected papers from the 11th Workshop on Specification of Abstract Data Types Joint with the 8th COMPASS Workshop on Recent Trends in Data Type Specification. Springer-Verlag. pp. 49-57. ISBN3-540-61629-2.
^Jones,Roscoe, and Wood. Reflections on the Work of C.A.R. Hoare. Springer Science, 2010, page 3
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