Mike, thanks for the start of an interesting discussion.
As a matter of fact, there's been plenty of PL-oriented research in this area. On the top of my head, I can recall advanced, motivated by research in (A) program synthesis and (B) probabilistic programming. There might be more, but let me start by elaborating on these two.
(A) is represented by research conducted by Sumit Gulwani at MSR Redmond and his collaborators. To begin an Excel feature known as "flash fill" is a byproduct of his work, targeting a specific case of program synthesis: "programming by example". Here's a good survey paper from CACM 2012. In this vein, I should also mention the following papers:
- FlashRelate: extracting relational data from semi-structured spreadsheets using example
- Automating string processing in spreadsheets using input-output examples.
(B) For the probabilistic programming take, I'd recommend to take a look at the following work by Andy Gordon (also from MSR) and others:
This work helps to turn spreadsheets into probabilistic programs, whose "result" is a distribution of a certain random variable, which can be used to model all kinds of things. This topic is quite large and, perhaps, we should start another thread for it.