Close the world

Posted on April 26, 2017 by Travis Athougies

Haskell’s polymorphism is awesome for writing generic code.

In particular, Haskell’s typeclass mechanism allows you to write code that works over any type that implements certain functionality. Haskell’s GADT support allows you to hold references to values where you know nothing about the type, except the functionality it exports. The -XConstraintKinds feature allows us to be polymorphic over not only types but the constraints on those types as well. For example, the following type carries around the constraint parameter to the type and exposes it when the constructor is matched upon.

Another awesome feature is Haskell’s Typeable mechanism, which allows us to ‘forget’ about types at compile time and recover them safely at run-time. In particular, you can do something like

Here, MyDynamic can be used to store any Haskell type. When we want to use the value, we can use Data.Typeable.cast to get a value of a certain type, but only if that value had the type we wanted to begin with. This is type-safe, so there’s no risk of seg faulting. This works because GHC always knows the type passed to MyDynamic when the value is created. The Typeable a constraint in the constructor causes GHC to not only store the value of type a in the constructor, but also the ‘dictionary’ representing the implementation of the Typeable instance for a.

Now, for example, if we had a list of MyDynamic

We can define a function

Now, we can ask GHC for only the Int values in myList

Or, the Integer

Enter polymorphism

This is awesome, but suppose you wanted to write a function that could increment a list containing values of any type that implemented Num. You would like this list to be able to hold different types. For example, perhaps you had the following list.

We would like to write.

However, if you compile this, you will get an error about ambiguous types. You could try giving a type to 1 or cast, but, if you do, this function will only increment values of that type. For example, if you substituted cast a for cast a :: Maybe Int, incrementAll myNumList would yield [MyDynamic (2 :: Int), MyDynamic (2 :: Double), MyDynamic (3 :: Integer)]. That’s not very useful.

This is moderately annoying. It seems like Typeable ought to give us enough information to figure this out, but alas, Typeable doesn’t magically make Haskell a dynamic language.

It would be awesome if we could write a function like cast that let us operate on a value as long as its type fulfilled certain constraints. That is,

This function says takes a constraint over a single type parameter, a MyDynamic, a default result, and a function that can produce an r, given any a that satisfies the constraint. It returns the first r if the value in the MyDynamic doesn’t satisfy constraint c. If the value does satisfy c, then it passes that value to the given function and returns that value instead. If we had withConstraint, we can write incrementAll as

The world is too open

It turns out we can’t write withConstraint in its general form. For one thing, the set of instances available can change at run-time. Its not common, but Haskell code could potentially load a plugin at run-time. Thus, an instance for Num x may be introduced at run-time. Additionally, such run-time loading could introduce incoherent instances. Thus, any withConstraint function would have to be written in IO, so it could observe this global state.

However, the following function can still be written.

We can simplify this a bit more too.

And we can generalize even this!

Now forMyNums = withHead @Num. Of course, this only works if our types in the MyDynamic are Int, Double, or Integer. If we were to add a MyDynamic (x :: Float), it would not be incremented. However, it does show something important: if we limit ourselves to certain types, what we wanted becomes possible.

Additionally, what should be immediately clear here is that adding another type to our universe of types, is very mechanical. To add Float, just add another alternative in our (<|>) chain. In fact, it seems like these cast attempts combine monoidally.

The closed-world package

The closed-world package takes this idea to its logical extreme. It provides a type Universe that can hold any set of coherent instances. Not only can Universe hold concrete instances as we showed above, it can also hold instance constructors. For example, while Show Int is a concrete instance Show (a, b) is an ‘instance constructor’. It says that, given an instance for Show a and one for Show b, I can construct such an instance for Show (a, b).

Because Universes are like any Haskell value, it can only be constructed at some pure point in the program’s execution. At any particular point in a Haskell program, the compiler knows that the set of applying instances is indeed coherent (unless some very nasty compiler extensions are being turned on). This gets around the problems identified above where the ‘global’ set of instances may be incoherent.

closed-world provides a function withHead that looks like what we wrote above, except it also takes a Universe parameter identifying the full set of instances to use.

Now, if you have a value

You can specify a set of instances to use (you’ll need Template Haskell)

And now,

closed-world is available on github, and there is more documentation there. I’ll cover more about the internals in a later post.