Monday, January 14, 2013

A language and its interpretation - Learning free monads

I have been playing around with free monads of late and finding them more and more useful in implementing separation of concerns between pure data and its interpretation. Monads generally don't compose. But if you restrict monads to a particular form, then you can define a sum type that composes. In the paper Data Types a la carte, Wouter Swierstra describes this form as
data Term f a =
    Pure a
    | Impure (f (Term f a)) 
These monads consist of either pure values or an impure effect, constructed using f. When f is a functor, Term f is a monad. And in this case, Term f is the free monad being the left adjoint to the forgetful functor f.

I am not going into the details of what makes a monad free. I once asked this question on google+ and Edward Kmett came up with a beautiful explanation. So instead of trying to come up with a half assed version of the same, have a look at Ed's response here .

In short, we can say that a free monad is the freeest object possible that's still a monad.


Free monads compose and help you build larger abstractions which are pure data and yet manage to retain all properties of a monad. Hmm .. this sounds interesting because now we can not only build abstractions but make them extensible through composition by clients using the fact that it's still a monad.

A free monad is pure data, not yet interpreted, as we will see shortly. You can pass it to a separate interpreter (possibly multiple interpreters) which can do whatever you feel like with the structure. Your free monad remains pure while all impurities can be put inside your interpreters.

And so we interpret ..

In this post I will describe how I implemented an interpreter for a Joy like concatenative language that uses the stack for its computation. Of course it's just a prototype and addresses an extremely simplified subset, but you get the idea. The basic purpose is to explore the power of free monads and come up with something that can potentially be extended to a full blown implementation of the language.

When designing an interpreter there's always the risk of conflating the language along with the concerns of interpreting it. Here we will have the 2 completely decoupled by designing the core language constructs as free monads. Gabriel Gonzalez has written a series of blog posts [1,2,3] on the use of free monads which contain details of their virtues and usage patterns. My post is just an account of my learning experience. In fact after I wrote the post, I discovered a similar exercise done for embedding Forth in Haskell - so I guess I'm not the first one to learn free monads using a language interpreter.

Let's start with some code, which is basically a snippet of Joy like code that will run within our Haskell interpreter ..
p :: Joy ()
p = do push 5
       push 6

This is our wish list and at the end of the post we will see if we can interpret this correctly and reason about some aspects of this code. Let's not bother much about the details of the above snippet. The important point is that if we fire it up in ghci, we will see that it's pure data!
*Joy> p
Free (Push 5 (Free (Push 6 (Free (Add (Free (Push 1 (Free (Add (Free (Push 1 (Free (Add (Free (Push 1 (Free (Add (Free (Dup (Free (Mult (Free (Dup (Free (Dup (Free (Mult (Free (Mult (Free End))))))))))))))))))))))))))))))

We haven't yet executed anything of the above code. It's completely free to be interpreted and possibly in multiple ways. So, we have achieved this isolation - that the data is freed from the interpreter. You want to develop a pretty printer for this data - go for it. You want to apply semantics and give an execution model based on Joy - do it.

Building the pure data (aka Builder)

Let's first define the core operators of the language ..
data JoyOperator cont = Push Int cont
                      | Add      cont 
                      | Mult     cont 
                      | Dup      cont 
                      | End          
                      deriving (Show, Functor)

The interesting piece is the derivation of the Functor, which is required for implementing the forgetful functor adjoint of the free monad. Keeping the technical mumbo jumbo aside, free monads are just a general way of turning functors into monads. So if we have a core operator f as a functor, we can get a free monad Free f out of it. And knowing something is a free monad helps you transform transform an operation over the monad (the monad homomorphism) into an operation over the functor (functor homomorphism). We will see how this helps later ..

The other point to note is that all operators take a continuation argument that points to the next operation in the chain. End is the terminal symbol and we plan to ignore anything that the user enters after an End.

Push takes an Int and pushes into the stack, Add pops the top 2 elements of the stack and pushes the sum, Mult does the same for multiplication and Dup duplicates the top element of the stack. End signifies the end of program.

Next we define the free monad over JoyOperator by using the Free data constructor, defined as part of Control.Monad.Free ..

data Free f a = Pure a | Free (f (Free f a))

-- | The free monad over JoyOperator
type Joy = Free JoyOperator

And then follow it up with some of the definitions of Joy operators as operations over free monads. Note that liftF lifts an operator (which is a Functor) into the context of a free monad. liftF has the following type ..

liftF :: Functor f => f a -> Free f a

As a property, a free moand has a forgetful functor as its left adjoint. The unlifting from the monad to the functor is given by the retract function ..

retract :: Monad f => Free f a -> f a

and needless to say

retract . liftF = id

-- | Push an integer to the stack
push :: Int -> Joy ()
push n = liftF $ Push n ()

-- | Add the top two numbers of the stack and push the sum
add :: Joy ()
add = liftF $ Add ()

.. and this can be done for all operators that we wish to support.

Not only this, we can also combine the above operators and build newer ones. Remember we are working with monads and hence the *do* notation based sequencing comes for free ..

-- | This combinator adds 1 to a number. 
incr :: Joy ()
incr = do {1; add}

-- | This combinator increments twice
add2 :: Joy ()
add2 = do {incr; incr}

-- | This combinator squares a number
square :: Joy ()
square = do {dup; mult}

Now we can have a composite program which sequences through the core operators as well as the ones we derive from them. And that's what we posted as our first example snippet of a target program.

An Interpreter (aka Visitor)

Once we have the pure data part done, let's try and build an interpreter that does the actual execution based on the semantics that we defined on the operators.

-- | Run a joy program. Result is either an Int or an error
runProgram :: Joy n -> Either JoyError Int
runProgram program = joy [] program
  where joy stack (Free (Push v cont))         = joy (v : stack) cont
        joy (a : b : stack) (Free (Add cont))  = joy (a + b : stack) cont
        joy (a : b : stack) (Free (Mult cont)) = joy (a * b : stack) cont
        joy (a : stack) (Free (Dup cont))      = joy (a : a : stack) cont
        joy _ (Free Add {})                    = Left NotEnoughParamsOnStack
        joy _ (Free Dup {})                    = Left NotEnoughParamsOnStack
        joy [] (Free End)                      = Left NotEnoughParamsOnStack
        joy [result] (Free End)                = Right result
        joy _ (Free End)                       = Left NotEmptyOnEnd
        joy _ Pure {}                          = Left NoEnd

runProgram is the interpreter that takes a free monad as its input. Its implementation is quite trivial - it just matches on the recursive structure of the data and pushes the appropriate results on the stack. Now if we run our program p using the above interpreter we get the correct result ..

*Joy> runProgram p
Right 7529536

Equational Reasoning

Being Haskell and being pure, we obviously can prove some bits and pieces of our program as mathematical equations. At the beginning I said that End is the end of the program and anything after End needs to be ignored. What happens if we do the following ..

runProgram $ do {push 5; incr; incr; end; incr; incr}

If you have guessed correctly we get Right 7, which means that all operations after end have been ignored. But can we prove that our program indeed does this ? The following is a proof that end indeed ends our program. Consider some operation m follows end ..

end >> m

-- definition of end
= liftF $ End >> m

-- m >> m' = m >>= \_ -> m'
= liftF $ End >>= \_ -> m

-- definition of liftF
= Free End >>= \_ -> m

-- Free m >>= f = Free (fmap (>>= f) m)
= Free (fmap (>>= \_ -> m) End)

-- fmap f End = End
= Free End

-- liftF f = Free f (f is a functor)
= liftF End

-- definition of End
= end

So this shows that any operation we do after end is never executed.

Improving the bind

Free monads offer improved modularity by allowing us to separate the building of pure data from the (possibly) impure concerns of interpreting it with the external world. But a naive implementation leads to a penalty in runtime efficiency as Janis Voigtlander discusses in his paper Asymptotic Improvement of Computations over Free Monads. And the Haskell's implementation of free monads had this inefficiency where the asymptotic complexity of substitution was quadratic because of left associative bind. Edward Kmett implemented the Janis trick and engineered a solution that gets over this inefficiency. I will discuss this in a future post. And if you would like to play around with the interpreter, the source is there in my github.

Thursday, January 03, 2013

strict : recursion :: non-strict : co-recursion

Consider the very popular algorithm that uses a tail recursive call to implement a map over a List. Here's the implementation in F#

let map converter l =
  let rec loop acc = function
    | [] -> acc
    | hd :: tl -> loop (converter hd :: acc) tl
  List.rev (loop [] l)

Scala is also a statically typed functional programming language, though it uses a completely different trick and mutability to implement map over a sequence. Let's ignore it for the time being and imagine we are being a bonafide functional programmer.

The above code uses a very common idiom of accumulate-and-reverse to implement a tail recursive algorithm. Though Scala stdlib does not use this technique and uses a mutable construct for this implementation, we could have done the same thing in Scala as well ..

Both Scala and F# are languages with strict evaluation semantics as the default. What would a similar tail recursive Haskell implementation look like ?

map' f xs = reverse $ go [] xs
    go accum [] = accum
    go accum (x:xs) = go (f x : accum) xs

Let's now have a look at the actual implementation of map in Haskell prelude ..

map :: (a -> b) -> [a] -> [b]
map _ []     = []
map f (x:xs) = f x : map f xs

Whoa! It's not a tail recursion and instead a body recursive implementation. Why is that ? We have been taught that tail recursion is the holy grail since it takes constant stack space and all ..

In a strict language the above implementation of map will be a bad idea since it uses linear stack space. On the other hand the initial implementation is tail recursive. But Haskell has non-strict semantics and hence the last version of map consumes only one element of the input and yields one element of the output. The earlier versions consume the whole input before yielding any output.

In a lazy language what you need is to make your algorithm co-recursive. And this needs co-data. Understanding co-data or co-recursion needs a brief background of co-induction and how it differs from induction.

When we define a list in Haskell as

data [a] = [] | a : [a]

it means that the set "List of a" is the smallest set such that [] is in the List of a, and if [a] is in the List of a and a is in a, then a : [a] is in List of a. This is the inductive definition os a List and we can use recursion to implement various properties of a List. Also once we have a recursive definition, we can use structural induction to prove various properties of the data structure.

If an inductive definition on data gives us the smallest set, a co-inductive definition on co-data gives us the largest set. Let's define a Stream in Haskell ..

data Stream a = Cons a (Stream a)

First to note - unlike the definition of a List, there's no special case for empty Stream. Hence no base case unlike the inductive definition above. And a "Stream of a" is the largest set consisting of a pair of an "a" and a "Stream of a". Which means that Stream is an infinite data structure i.e. the range (or co-domain) of a Stream is infinite. And we implement properties on co-inductive data structures using co-recursive programs. A co-recursive program is defined as one whose range is a type defined recursively as the greatest solution of some equation.

In terms of a little bit of mathematical concepts, if we model types as sets, then an infinite list of integers is the greatest set X for which there is a bijection X ≅ ℤ x X and a program that generates such a list is a co-recursive program. As its dual, the type of a finite list is the least set X for which X ≅ 1 + (ℤ x X), where 1 is a singleton set and + is the disjoint union of sets. Any program which consumes such an input is a recursive program. (Note the dualities in italics).

Strictly speaking, the co-domain does not necessarily have to be infinite. If you have read my earlier post on initial algebra, co-recursion recursively defines functions whose co-domain is a final data type, dual to the way that ordinary recursion recursively defines functions whose domain is an initial data type.

In case of primitive recursion (with the List data type above), you always frame the recursive step to operate on data which gets reduced in size in subsequent steps of recursive calls. It's not so with co-recursion since you may be working with co-data and infinite data structures. Since in Haskell, a List can also be infinite, using the above co-recursive definition of map, we can have

head $ map (1+) [1..]

which invokes map on an infinite list of integers. And here the co-recursive steps of map operate successively on sets of data which are not less than the earlier set. So, it's not tail recursion that makes an efficient implementation in Haskell, you need to make the co-recursive call within the application of a constructor.

As the first post of the new year, that's all friends. Consider this as the notes from someone learning the principles of co-inductive definitions. Who knew co-recursion is so interesting ? It will be more interesting once we get down into the proof techniques for co-recursive programs. But that's for a future post ..