Correctness (computer science)

Correctness (computer science)

In theoretical computer science, correctness of an algorithm is asserted when it is said that the algorithm is correct with respect to a specification. Functional correctness refers to the input-output behaviour of the algorithm (i.e., for each input it produces the correct output).

A distinction is made between total correctness, which additionally requires that the algorithm terminates, and partial correctness, which simply requires that if an answer is returned it will be correct. Since there is no general solution to the halting problem, a total correctness assertion may lie much deeper. A termination proof is a type of mathematical proof that plays a critical role in formal verification because total correctness of an algorithm depends on termination.

For example, successively searching through integers 1, 2, 3, … to see if we can find an example of some phenomenon — say an odd perfect number — it is quite easy to write a partially correct program (using long division by two to check n as perfect or not). But to say this program is totally correct would be to assert something currently not known in number theory.

A proof would have to be a mathematical proof, assuming both the algorithm and specification are given formally. In particular it is not expected to be a correctness assertion for a given program implementing the algorithm on a given machine. That would involve such considerations as limitations on computer memory.

A deep result in proof theory, the Curry-Howard correspondence, states that a proof of functional correctness in constructive logic corresponds to a certain program in the lambda calculus. Converting a proof in this way is called program extraction.

Hoare logic is a specific formal system for reasoning rigorously about the correctness of computer programs. It can only show partial correctness and has to be augmented with a separate termination proof.

See also

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