EDITORIAL | March 1, 2024

Opinion: AGI Influencing the Secure Code Review Profession

It’s tough to be a secure code reviewer. There are already over 700 programming languages according to Wikipedia, and seemingly more languages materializing every year. Expectations are high that rapid developments in Artificial Generative Intelligence (AGI) will bring a new suite of languages and security issues that’ll have an oversized impact on software development. Consequently, secure software development lifecycle (SDL) processes and security code review are having to evolve rapidly.

I’m both excited and nervous about AGI advancements in the world of software development and secure application design. It’s exciting to see how prompt engineering of Large Language Models (LLM) and adoption of AI augmentation in the form of copilots and chatbots are increasing the pace of ideation into new products. I’m nervous about the hallucinations and code quality being generated in response though.

English as a Programming Language

2023 was the breakthrough year for AI, with LLM and AGI permeating every industry, technology, and product. Today, the most in-demand languages currently are Python, C, and C++ but, controversially, the future star programming language may in fact be English; something that’ll take some time to adjust to.

For over a decade we’ve been told that the supply of experienced cybersecurity professionals has trailed the market’s requirements, with a deficit growing year-on-year, and a casual scan across office desks and cubicles will highlight a more significant gender gap across the cybersecurity (and software development) industry. I think AGI and emergence of English as a critical programming language are fundamental to correcting both industry problems.

AGI, particularly those based upon LLM advancements, are increasingly sophisticated language machines – and women may have an advantage over men in maximizing utility and productivity from them.

Multiple studies over the last 30 years have constantly highlighted that women are better communicators than men. “Better” is obviously an explosive and controversial term even amongst the academics who published the studies, but in general women have more expansive vocabularies and stronger interpretative communication skills. Modern neuroscience and studies in children and adolescents identify girls as more garrulous than boys, with greater complexity and sophistication of language, and tend to develop more in the realm of listening with greater focus and concentration as they age. This historically translates into women being better coders than men (once you remove the bias in the system).

As I look to AGI and the expanding world of prompt engineering, I anticipate that women will have an advantage over their male developer counterparts. Strong and well-developed communication skills (and the reasoning and understanding that underlays those polished skills) are prerequisites for maximizing efficiency of AGI-returned results and tuning responses – both now and for the immediate future.

Starter-job Experience

But what about experience? The “experience gap” is often called out as a chasm for newly minted degree-holding graduates and landing a starter-job in cybersecurity.

It’s rare to find an entry-level job in our industry that doesn’t require multiple years of hands-on security experience nowadays as many of those traditional starter roles – network scanning, alert triage, playbook maintenance, patch management – have been automated away, with many more projected to disappear as AI adoption increases.

Most successful new entrants into the cybersecurity profession come from adjacent technical industries making a career jump rather than direct from a college or university. Armed with transferable skills and technical experience, they’re capable of crossing the chasm left in the wake of cyber automation. However, the security knowledge gap between a cybersecurity veteran and a recent transfer remains large and a growing concern for the industry.

I’m excited to think AI augmentation and copilot technologies will have one of the largest impacts on our industry – removing much of the security knowledge gap and reducing the overall impact of the experience gap – like what is happening in other industries, such as the medical field. For example, AI use in patient triage, predictive analytics, and virtual assistants are augmenting generalist regional nurses (two-year qualification) and Bachelor of Science in Nursing (four-year qualification) graduates, and allowing them to perform many of the roles and responsibilities traditionally associated with a completed medical doctor degree (10 to 12 years).

Secure Code Reviews

It’s tough to be a secure code reviewer. There aren’t enough of them. The job requires tremendous amounts of experience and advanced security knowledge, and it’s tiring and hard work.

AGI is going to have a huge impact on their job.

On the positive side, English as a programming language and AI augmentation and copilots is going to help increase both the breadth and depth of the cybersecurity talent pool available to perform this critical job. The tools available to code reviewers to automatically review and assess code security are advancing quickly and, while still in their first generation of AI adoption, are anticipated to mature rapidly and identify vulnerabilities and logic flaws with higher fidelity and trust. I’m sure there’ll be a gap between the best that a tool can achieve versus the best-of-the-best human expert though – especially when that expert is augmented and using similar tools themselves.

Meanwhile, AGI is spearheading prompt engineering of new software applications. A new generation of product developers may have little to no influence over the code that powers the application. Indeed, I’ve previously argued that the role of product manager will change greatly in the coming years as their skills in product design and requirement setting pivot from being directed to engineering teams and into AGI prompts instead.

What does an AGI-generated application look like under the covers? Time will tell. We anticipate it’ll increasingly become more secure – using best security practices and recycling pretested code behind the scenes – and that it’ll constantly learn, optimize, and apply best and better security practices – but we’ll still need those human secure code reviewers for some time to come, specially when it comes to high-impact applications and certification.

A concern though as AGI does more of the application development software developers will have less direct influence over the underlying code is that powering the application and business logic. It would be a nightmare if the AGI produced entirely different code throughout the application each time it received new design criteria and re-optimized – making vulnerability triage, reporting, reconciliation, and tracking near impossible, and code reviews and code certifications (human or tool led) largely nonsensical.

Watch this space!

I think we’re still some years away from having to worry about continuously reimagined code generated by AGI without human software developers tweaking and refining the underlaying application code, but it is tremendously exciting to see the rapid advances in prompt engineering and how LLM’s are being incorporated into both old and new products.

Our industry has consistently struggled to attract and retain women. AGI has the potential to not only level the field and make it easier to join the game, but to also leverage previously poorly-tapped communication skills for the betterment of both application development and security. There’s a lot of work ahead. There’s a lot of research to be done. There’s a lot of opportunities to make code more secure!