March 29, 2024

The double-edged sword of AI-assisted coding

The emergence of tools like GitHub Copilot into software development has been nothing short of a revolution. This artificial intelligence (AI) tool has promised to transform the way code is written, making developers more productive by significantly reducing the time it takes to write software. However, this breakthrough brings with it a critical question: What does this mean for the quality of the software being produced?

A new dawn for developers

Let's compare the traditional process of coding to painting a detailed mural. Previously, a developer, much like an artist, would meticulously plan their work, carefully selecting each element for its purpose and placement. With GitHub Copilot, it's as though the artist is now accompanied by a highly efficient assistant, one who instantly suggests the next color or brushstroke. Pretty nifty.

According to a report by GitClear titled Coding on Copilot, developers are now coding 55% faster, a staggering increase in speed that heralds a new era of productivity. However, with speed comes the risk of losing the nuances and depth that come from a more deliberate approach.

The quality conundrum

The essence of this dilemma lies not in the act of writing code faster but in the aftermath of the development. When building software, the quality of the code acts as the foundation of the final product. If the code is like bricks in a building, then poor-quality bricks lead to a shaky foundation, compromising the stability and longevity of the software. And replacing them later can be a costly undertaking.

AI-generated code, optimized for speed and acceptance, often overlooks the meticulous refinement that experienced developers bring to their work. This results in software that might work in the short term but lacks the robustness and scalability required for long-term success.

The rise of churn

Churn, in the context of coding, refers to the frequent revision or reversal of recently written code. It's like writing an email, sending it, and then immediately recalling it to revise.

While some degree of churn is expected, an excessive amount can indicate deeper issues. The GitClear report points out that code churn is projected to double compared to its pre-AI rates. This increase in churn suggests that more developers find themselves revisiting and correcting their code shortly after writing it, a sign of inefficiency and potentially lower code quality.

Refactoring code

Refactoring code is like reorganizing or renovating your house to improve its functionality without changing its address. It's a crucial step in maintaining clean, efficient code.

However, the GitClear report highlights a concerning trend: a significant decline in code being moved or refactored. This suggests that AI tools like Copilot may be leading developers towards a "build new rather than improve existing" mindset.

The decrease in refactoring and the increase in "copy-paste" coding practices result in bloated, less maintainable codebases, akin to houses filled with unnecessary partitions and duplicate rooms, which complicates future modifications and expansions.

Looking ahead

The integration of AI into coding practices represents a pivotal moment in the evolution of software development. GitHub Copilot, with its promise of heightened productivity, is just the beginning.

However, this journey is also fraught with challenges. The balance between embracing new, efficient tools and maintaining high-quality coding standards is delicate. The decrease in code quality, as evidenced by increased churn and reduced refactoring, calls for a conscious effort to leverage AI tools responsibly.

It is essential to approach AI-assisted coding with a blend of optimism and caution. The potential for AI to enhance developer productivity is immense, but it should not come at the expense of the craftsmanship that defines exceptional software.

The future of coding with AI holds great promise, yet it demands a thoughtful approach to ensure that the rush for efficiency does not undermine the quality of the digital world we are building. In the end, the most enduring and impactful software is crafted with both speed and precision, a testament to the art and science of coding.

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