wiki:Commentary/Compiler/Coercions

Version 2 (modified by simonpj, 3 years ago) (diff)

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Coercions in GHC's core language

Ever since coercions were introduced into GHC's Core language I have treated

  • Coercions like types
  • Coercion variables like type variables

In particular, casts, coercion applications, and coercion abstractoins are all erased before we generate code.

I now think that this is the wrong approach. This note describes why.

Difficulties with the current approach

Ther are two problems with the current approach

  • Equality evidence variables ("type variables") are treated differently to dictionary evidence variables ("term varaibles"). This leads to lots of tiresome non-uniformities.
  • In an abstraction /\a\x:a.e the type variable a can appear in the type of a term-variable binder x. In contrast x can't appear in the type of another binder. Coercion binders behave exactly like term binders in this way, and quite unlike type binders.
  • More seeriously, we don't have a decent way to handle superclass equalities.

The last problem is the one that triggered this note, and needs a bit more explanation. Consider

class (F a ~ b, Eq a) => C a b where
  op :: a -> b

The dictionary for C looks like this:

data C a b where
  MkC :: (F a ~ b, Num a) => (a->b) -> C a b

Now imagine typechecking a function like this

f :: C a b => a -> a 
f x = x + 1

The Core program we generate looks something like this:

f = /\a b. \(d:C a b).
    let (nd : Num a) = case d of { MkC _ d _ -> d }
    in (+) nd x (fromInteger nd 1)

The nd binding extracts the Num superclass dictionary from the C dictionary; the case expression is called a superclass selector.

Now suppose that we needed to use the equality superclass rather than the Num superclass:

g :: C a b => [F a] -> [b]
g xs = xs

The obvious translation would look like this:

g = /\ab. \(d:C a b).
    let (eq : F a ~ b) = case d of { MkC eq _ _ -> eq }
    in xs |> [eq]

But Core doesn't (currently) have a let-binding form that binds a coercion variable, and whose right-hand side is a term (in this example, a case expression) rather than a literal coercion! So the current plan is to generate this instead:

g = /\ab. \(d:C a b).
    case d of { MkC eq _ _ -> 
    in xs |> [eq] }

This non-uniformity of equality and dictionary evidence is extremely awkward in the desugarer. Moreover, it means that we can't abstract the superclass selector; we'd really like to have:

g = /\ab. \(d:C a b).
    let (eq : F a ~ b) = sc_sel1 d
    in xs |> [eq]

And it interacts poorly with the class-op rules that GHC uses to simplify dictinary selectors. Imagine the call

dIB :: C Int Bool
dIB
  g Int Bool d

...unfinished...

Main proposal

  • Treat equality evidence just like any other sort of evidence.
    • A coercion variable is an Id, not a TyVar.