Software mutational robustness

Eric Schulte, Zachary P. Fry, Ethan Fast, Westley Weimer, Stephanie Forrest

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

59 Scopus citations


Neutral landscapes and mutational robustness are believed to be important enablers of evolvability in biology. We apply these concepts to software, defining mutational robustness to be the fraction of random mutations to program code that leave a program's behavior unchanged. Test cases are used to measure program behavior and mutation operators are taken from earlier work on genetic programming. Although software is often viewed as brittle, with small changes leading to catastrophic changes in behavior, our results show surprising robustness in the face of random software mutations. The paper describes empirical studies of the mutational robustness of 22 programs, including 14 production software projects, the Siemens benchmarks, and four specially constructed programs. We find that over 30 % of random mutations are neutral with respect to their test suite. The results hold across all classes of programs, for mutations at both the source code and assembly instruction levels, across various programming languages, and bear only a limited relation to test suite coverage. We conclude that mutational robustness is an inherent property of software, and that neutral variants (i.e., those that pass the test suite) often fulfill the program's original purpose or specification. Based on these results, we conjecture that neutral mutations can be leveraged as a mechanism for generating software diversity. We demonstrate this idea by generating a population of neutral program variants and showing that the variants automatically repair latent bugs. Neutral landscapes also provide a partial explanation for recent results that use evolutionary computation to automatically repair software bugs.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)281-312
Number of pages32
JournalGenetic Programming and Evolvable Machines
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Genetic programming
  • Mutation testing
  • Mutational robustness
  • N-version programming
  • Neutral landscapes
  • Proactive diversity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Software
  • Theoretical Computer Science
  • Hardware and Architecture
  • Computer Science Applications


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