the MPTC Dilemma (please solve)

Claus Reinke claus.reinke at
Sun Feb 19 07:29:09 EST 2006

> I'm forwarding an email that Martin Sulzmann asked me to post on his
> behalf.

thanks. well, that is one view of things. but it is certainly not the only one.

first, about those "acrobatics": my type-class-level programs tend to
start out as straightforward logic programs over types - no acrobatics 
involved, easy to understand. the acrobatics start when I'm trying to 
fit those straightforward programs into the straightjackets imposed 
by current systems - be they explicit restrictions or accidental 
limitations. wrestling them leads to the need to introduce complex 
work-arounds and implementation-specific tricks into the formerly
clean logic programs.

the restrictions tend to be artificial and full of odd corners, rather 
than smooth or natural, and the limitations tend to be the result of 
not thinking the problem through. so one could say that neither of
the levels proposed by Martin is ready for standardization. or, one
could be pragmatic and standardize both levels, well knowing that
neither is going to be the final word.

second, about the proposal to "ignore overlapping instances for the
moment": that moment has long passed - iirc, undecidable and 
overlapping instances have been around for longer than the current
standard Haskell 98. they provide recursion and conditionals (via
best-match pattern-matching) for logic programming over types.
they are overdue for inclusion in the standard, and it is time to stop 
closing our eyes to this fact.

third, understanding FDs via CHRs is very nice, and a good start
that I hope to see expanded on rather sooner than later. but (a) 
there is a big discrepancy between the language studied there and 
current practice, so this work will have to catch on before it can
be applied; and (b) the main issue with unconstrained type-class-
level programming is not that it tackles a semi-decidable problem.

in fact, the usual Prolog system only provides an _incomplete_ 
implementation of almost the same semi-decidable problem. but it 
provides a well-defined and predictable implementation, so
programmers can live with that (with a few well-known exceptions).

the two problems are not quite the same, because we extract
programs from type-class-level proofs. so not only do we need
the result to be uniquely determined (coherence), we also need
the proof to be un-ambiguous (or we might get different programs
depending on the proof variant chosen).

but, and this is an important "but": trying to restrict the permissable
programs so that neither incoherence nor ambiguity can arise in 
the first place is only _one_ way to tackle the issue; the other
direction that needs to be explored is to give programmers control
enough to disambiguate and to restore coherence where needed.

so, I am quite happy with splitting the bigger problem into two
levels: restrictive programs corresponding to the current state of
art in formal studies of the problem, and unconstrained programs
catering for the current state of art in programming practice. just
as long as both levels are included in the standard, and both levels
receive the further attention they need.

as far as I understand, this should not pose a problem for 
implementors, as they usually implement the simpler unconstrained 
variant first, then add restrictions to conform to the standard.


> - There's a class of MPTC/FD programs which enjoy sound, complete
>  and decidable type inference. See Result 1 below. I believe that
>  hugs and ghc faithfully implement this class.
>  Unfortunately, for advanced type class acrobats this class of
>  programs is too restrictive.
> - There's a more expressive class of MPTC/FD programs which enjoy
>  sound and complete type inference if we can guarantee termination
>  by for example imposing a dynamic check.  See Result 2 below. Again,
>  I believe that  hugs and ghc faithfully implement this class if they
>  additionally implement a dynamic termination check.
>  Most type class acrobats should be happy with this class I believe.
> Let's take a look at the combination of FDs and "well-behaved" instances.
> By well-behaved instances I mean instances which are non-overlapping and
> terminating. From now on I will assume that instances must be well-behaved.
> The (maybe) surprising observation is that the combination
> of FDs and well-behaved instances easily breaks completeness and
> decidability of type inference. Well, all this is well-studied.
> Check out
> [February 2006] Understanding Functional Dependencies via Constraint
> Handling Rules by Martin Sulzmann, Gregory J. Duck, Simon Peyton-Jones
> and Peter J. Stuckey
> which is available via my home-page.
> Here's a short summary of the results in the paper:
> Result 1:
> To obtain sound (we always have that), complete and decidable type inference
> we need to impose
>    - the Basic Conditions (see Sect4)
>      (we can replace the Basic Conditions by any conditions which guarantees
>       that instances are well-behaved. I'm ignoring here
>       super classes for simplicity)
>    - Jones's FD restrictions and the Bound Variable Condition (see Sect4.1)
> The trouble is that these restrictions are quite "severe". In fact,
> there's not much hope to improve on these results. See the discussion
> in Sect5.1-5.3.
> Let's take a look at a simple example to understand the gist of the problem.
> Ex: Consider
> class F a b | a->b
> instance F a b => F [a] [b] -- (F)
> Assume some program text generates the constraint F [a] a.
> Type inference will improve a to [b] (because of the 
> functional dependency in connection with the instance).
> Though, then we'll find the constraint F [[b]] [b]
> which can be resolved by the instance to F [b] b.
> But this is a renamed copy of the original constraint
> hence, type inference will not terminate here.
> If we translate the instance and improvement conditions of
> the above program to CHRs the problem becomes obvious.
> rule F a b, F a c  ==> b=c    -- the FD rule
> rule F [a] [a]    <==> F a b  -- the instance rule
> rule F [a] c       ==> c=[b]  -- the improvement rule
> The rules should be read from left to right where
> "==>" stands for propagation and "<==>" for simplification.
> My point: The above improvement rule is (potentially) dangerous
> cause we introduce a fresh variable b. And that's why type inference
> may not terminate. Using the terminology from the paper.
> The instance (F) violates one of Jones' FD restriction (the Coverage
> Condition).
> So, is all lost? Not quite. A second major result in the paper says
> that if we can guarantee termination then we can guarantee completeness.
> Of course, we need to find some appropriate replacement for 
> Jones' FD restrictions.
> Result2:
> Assuming we can guarantee termination, then type inference
> is complete if we can satisfy
>   - the Bound Variable Condition,
>   - the Weak Coverage Condition, 
>   - the Consistency Condition, and
>   - and FDs are full.
> Effectively, the above says that type inference is sound,
> complete but semi-decidable. That is, we're complete
> if each each inference goal terminates.
> Here's a short explanation of the conditions.
> The Bound Variable Condition says that all variables which appear
> in the instance head must appear in the instance body.
> Weak Coverage says that any of the "unbound" variables (see b
> in the above example) must be captured by a FD in the instance context.
> This sounds complicated but is fairly simple. Please see the paper.
> Consistency says that for any FD and any two instances the improvement
> rules generated must be consistent. In fact, because we assume
> that FDs are full and instances are well-behaved (i.e. instances are
> non-overlapping) the Consistency Condition is always satisfied here. 
> So, why did I mention Consistency then? Well, Theorem 2 in the paper 
> from which Result2 is derived is stated in very general terms. 
> We only assume that instances are terminating and confluent. Hence,
> we could (eventually) extend Result2 to overlapping instances
> and *then* Consistency becomes important (But PLEASE let's ignore
> overlapping instances for the moment).
> Okay, let's consider the last condition.
> We say a FD is full
> if all class parameters either appear in the domain or range of a FD.
> For example, 
>   class F a b c | a -> b is not full but
>   class F a b c | a b -> c is full
> Again, if we leave out any of the above conditions, we loose completeness.
> Result2 covers in my opinion a rich class of FD programs.
> In my experience, the fullness condition is not a problem.
> (In some situations, we can transform a non-full into a full
> program but I'd rather reject non-full FDs).
> We could even drop the Bound Variable Condition and check
> for this condition "locally", similar to the way we check
> for termination now locally.
> Somebody might ask, will ATs (associated types) behave any better?
> Unfortunately not, they share the same problem as FDs. AT type inference
> has the potential to become undecidable and incomplete.
> Here's the above example re-casted in AT terms.
> class F a where
>  type T a
> instance F a => F [a]
>  type T [a] = [T a]
> Assume some program text generates the constraint T [b] = b.
> Naively, we could apply the above type definition which results
> in [T [b]] = b etc 
> (T [b] = [T b] and T [b] = b leads to [T b] = b which leads
> to [T [T b]] = b)
> Though, the current AT description rejects the constraint T [b] = b
> right away. AT applies the occurs check rule. Clearly, b in fv(T [b]).
> Important point to note: The occurs check is a "dynamic" check. 
> We could impose a similar check on FDs. E.g. the type class
> constraint F [a] a contains a cycle. Hence, we should immediately
> reject this constraint. Of course, cycles may span across
> several constraints/type equations. For example, consider
> F [a] b, F [b] a  and T [a]=b, T [b]=a.
> Probably, more could be said but I'll stop here.
> Martin
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