wiki:TypeNats/Basics

Version 18 (modified by simonpj, 3 years ago) (diff)

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Type-Level Naturals

There is a new kind, Nat. It is completely separate from GHC's hierarchy of sub-kinds, so Nat is only a sub-kind of itself.

The inhabitants of Nat are an infinite family of (empty) types, corresponding to the natural numbers:

0, 1, 2, ... :: Nat

These types are linked to the value world by a small library with the following API:

module GHC.TypeNats where

Singleton Types

We relate type-level natural numbers to run-time values via a family of singleton types:

data Nat (n :: Nat)

nat          :: NatI n => Nat n
natToInteger :: Nat n -> Integer

The only "interesting" value of type Nat n is the number n. Technically, there is also an undefined element. The value of a singleton type may be named using nat, which is a bit like a "smart" constructor for Nat n. Note that because nat is polymorphic, we may have to use a type signature to specify which singleton we mean. For example:

> natToInteger (nat :: Nat 3)
3

One may think of the smart constructor nat as being a method of a special built-in class, NatI:

class NatI n where
  nat :: Nat n

instance NatI 0 where nat = "singleton 0 value"
instance NatI 1 where nat = "singleton 1 value"
instance NatI 2 where nat = "singleton 2 value"
etc.

The name NatI is a mnemonic for the different uses of the class:

  • It is the introduction construct for 'Nat' values,
  • It is an implicit parameter of kind 'Nat' (this is discussed in more detail bellow)

Examples

Here is how we can use the basic primitives to define a Show instance for singleton types:

instance Show (Nat n) where
  showsPrec p n = showsPrec p (natToInteger n)

A more interesting example is to define a function which maps integers into singleton types:

integerToMaybeNat :: NatI n => Integer -> Maybe (Nat n)
integerToMaybeNat x = check nat
  where check y = if x == natToInteger y then Just y else Nothing

The implementation of integerToMaybeNat is a little subtle: by using the helper function check, we ensure that the two occurrences of nat (aka y) both have the same type, namely Nat n. There are other ways to achieve the same, for example, by using scoped type variables, and providing explicit type signatures.

Now, we can use integerToNat to provide a Read instance for singleton types:

instance NatI n => Read (Nat n) where
  readsPrec p x       = do (x,xs) <- readsPrec p x
                           case integerToMaybeNat x of
                             Just n  -> [(n,xs)]
                             Nothing -> []

Implicit vs. Explicit Parameters

There are two different styles of writing functions which need the integer corresponding to a type level natural.

One approach is to use an explicit parameter of type Nat n. For example:

memset :: Storable a => ArrPtr n a -> a -> Nat n -> IO ()
memset = ...

This style is, basically, a more typed version of what is found in many standard C libraries. Callers of this function have to pass the size of the array explicitly, and the type system checks that the size matches that of the array. When defining memset we can just use natToInteger on the Nat n parameter to get the actual value of the array size.

Another approach is to let the system infer the parameter by using the class TypeNat. For example:

memsetAuto :: (Storable a, NatI n) => ArrPtr n a -> a -> IO ()

In this style, the caller of the function does not need to provide the size of the array explicitly. Instead, it is computed automatically from the type of the array. When defining memsetAuto we can use nat, the method of TypeNat, to get access to the value corresponding to the type level natural.

When using the implicit style, it is important that the type of nat is specified precisely. Failing to do so typically results in ambiguity errors (i.e., GHC does not know which integer it should use). Another common mistake is to forget that 'nat' is a polymorphic value and so every time it is used it may refer to a different value.

An easy way to avoid such problems is to implement the implicit style functions in terms of the explicit ones. For example, we can implement memsetAuto like this:

memsetAuto arr val = memset arr val nat