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Type parameters and dynamic types: a crazy idea

2020-07-24 22:19 +0100. Tags: comp, prog, pldesign, fenius, in-english

A while ago I wrote a couple of posts about an idea I had about how to mix static and dynamic typing and the problems with that idea. I've recently thought about a crazy solution to this problem, probably too crazy to implement in practice, but I want to write it down before it flees my mind.

The problem

Just to recapitulate, the original idea was to have reified type variables in the code, so that a generic function like:

let foo[T](x: T) = ...

would actually receive T as a value, though one that would be passed automatically by default if not explicitly specified by the programmer, i.e., when calling foo(5), the compiler would have enough information to actually call foo[Int](5) under the hood without the programmer having to spell it out.

The problem is how to handle heterogeneous data structures, such as lists of arbitrary objects. For example, when deserializing a JSON object like [1, "foo", true] into a List[T], there is no value we can give for T that carries enough information to decode any element of the list.

The solution

The solution I had proposed in the previous post was to have a Dynamic type which encapsulates the type information and the value, so you would use a List[Dynamic] here. The problem is that every value of the list has to be wrapped in a Dynamic container, i.e., the list becomes [Dynamic(1), Dynamic("foo"), Dynamic(true)].

But there is a more unconventional possibility hanging around here. First, the problem here is typing a heterogeneous sequence of elements as a list. But there is another sequence type that lends itself nicely for this purpose: the tuple. So although [1, "foo", true] can't be given a type, (1, "foo", true) can be given the type Tuple[Int, Str, Bool]. The problem is that, even if the Tuple type parameters are variables, the quantity of elements is fixed statically, i.e., it doesn't work for typing an arbitrarily long list deserialized from JSON input, for instance. But what if I give this value the type Tuple[*Ts], where * is the splice operator (turns a list into multiple arguments), and Ts is, well, a list of types? This list can be given an actual type: List[Type]. So now we have these interdependent dynamic types floating around, and to know the type of the_tuple[i], the type stored at Ts[i] has to be consulted.

I'm not sure how this would work in practice, though, especially when constructing this list. Though maybe in a functional setting, it might work. Our deserialization function would look like (in pseudo-code):

let parse_list(input: Str): Tuple[*Ts] = {
    if input == "" {
        # Returns a Tuple[], and Ts is implicitly [].
    } elif let (value, rest) = parse_integer(input) {
        (value, *parse_list(rest))
        # If parse_list(rest) is of type Tuple[*Ts],
        # (value, *parse_list(rest)) is of type Tuple[Int, *Ts].
    } ...

For dictionaries, things might be more complicated; the dictionary type is typically along the lines of Dict[KeyType, ValueType], and we are back to the same problem we had with lists. But just as heterogeneous lists map to tuples, we could perhaps map heterogeneous dictionaries to… anonymous records! So instead of having a dictionary {"a": 1, "b": true} of type Dict[Str, T], we would instead have a record (a=1, b=true) of type Record[a: Int, b: Bool]. And just as a dynamic list maps to Tuple[*Ts], a dynamic dictionary maps to Record[**Ts], where Ts is a dictionary of type Dict[Str, Type], mapping each record key to a type.

Could this work? Probably. Would it be practical or efficient? I'm not so sure. Would it be better than the alternative of just having a dynamic container, or even specialized types for dynamic collections? Probably not. But it sure as hell is an interesting idea.

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