Version 22 (modified by diatchki, 3 years ago) (diff)


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.TypeLits where

Singleton Types

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

data TNat (n :: Nat)

tNat         :: NatI n => TNat n
tNatInteger  :: TNat n -> Integer

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

> :set -XDataKinds
> tNatInteger (tNat :: TNat 3)

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

class NatI n where
  tNat :: TNat n

instance NatI 0 where tNat = ...singleton 0 value...
instance NatI 1 where tNat = ...singleton 1 value...
instance NatI 2 where tNat = ...singleton 2 value...

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

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


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

instance Show (TNat n) where
  showsPrec p n = showsPrec p (tNatInteger n)

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

integerToMaybeNat :: NatI n => Integer -> Maybe (TNat n)
integerToMaybeNat x = tNatThat (== x)

It checks that the value argument x, passed at runtime, matches the statically-expected value, returning Nothing if not, and a typed singleton if so.

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, thus:

integerToMaybeNat :: forall n. NatI n => Integer -> Maybe (Nat n)
integerToMaybeNat x 
  | x == natToInteger (nat :: Nat n) = Just nat 
  | otherwise                        = Nothing

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. To illustrate the two style consider a type for working with C-style arrays:

newtype ArrPtr (n :: Nat) a = ArrPtr (Ptr a)

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

memset :: Storable a => ArrPtr n a -> a -> TNat 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 tNatInteger` on the TNat 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 NatI. For example:

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

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 {tNat, the method of NatI, to get access to the value corresponding to the type level natural.

When using the implicit style, it is important that the type of tNat 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 'tNat' 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. The ba

memsetAuto arr val = memset arr val nat