Little Tricky Logics

Posted on 05 November 2022.

LTL (Linear Temporal Logic) has long been central in computer-aided verification and synthesis. Lately, it’s also been making significant inroads into areas like planning for robots. LTL is powerful, beautiful, and concise. What’s not to love?

However, any logic used in these settings must also satisfy the central goal of being understandable by its users. Especially in a field like synthesis, there is no second line of defense: a synthesizer does exactly what the specification says. If the specification is wrong, the output will be wrong in the same way.

Therefore, we need to understand how people comprehend these logics. Unfortunately, the human factors of logics has seen almost no attention in the research community. Indeed, if anything, the literature is rife with claims about what is “easy” or “intuitive” without any rigorous justification for such claims.

With this paper, we hope to change that conversation. We bring to bear on this problem several techniques from diverse areas—but primarily from education and other social sciences (with tooling provided by computer science)—to understand the misconceptions people have with logics. Misconceptions are not merely mistakes; they are validated understanding difficulties (i.e., having the wrong concept), and hence demand much greater attention. We are especially inspired by work in physics education on the creation of concept inventories, which are validated instruments for rapidly identifying misconceptions in a population, and take steps towards the creation of one.

Concretely, we focus on LTL (given its widespread use) and study the problem of LTL understanding from three different perspectives:

  • LTL to English: Given an LTL formula, can a reader accurately translate it into English? This is similar to what a person does when reading a specification, e.g., when code-reviewing work or studying a paper.

  • English to LTL: Given an English statement, can a reader accurately express it in LTL? This skill is essential for specification and verification.

Furthermore, “understanding LTL” needs to be divided into two parts: syntax and semantics. Therefore, we study a third issue:

  • Trace satisfaction: Given an LTL formula and a trace (sequence of states), can a reader accurately label the trace as satisfying or violating? Such questions directly test knowledge of LTL semantics.

Our studies were conducted over multiple years, with multiple audiences, and using multiple methods, with both formative and confirmatory phases. The net result is that we find numerous misconceptions in the understanding of LTL in all three categories. Notably, our studies are based on small formulas and traces, so we expect the set of issues will only grow as the instruments contain larger artifacts.

Ultimately, in addition to

  1. finding concrete misconceptions,

we also:

  1. create a codebook of misconceptions that LTL users have, and

  2. provide instruments for finding these misconceptions.

We believe all three will be of immediate use to different communities, such as students, educators, tool-builders, and designers of new logic-based languages.

For more details, see the paper.