Overloading the lambda abstraction in Haskell

About two years ago, I started working on a little embedded domain-specific language (EDSL) called achille, using Haskell. Because this EDSL has its own notion of morphisms Recipe m a b from a to b, I was looking for a way to let users write such morphisms using regular Haskell functions and the syntax for lambda abstraction, \x -> ....

As recently as 5 days ago, I was still convinced that there was no way to do such a thing without requiring a lot of engineering effort, either through GHC compiler plugins or with Template Haskell — two things I’d rather stay far away from.


However, 5 days ago I stumbled upon some paper by sheer luck. And well, I’m happy to report that “overloading” the lambda abstraction is completely doable. Not only that: it is actually very easy and doesn’t require any advanced Haskell feature, nor any kind of metaprogramming. No. library. needed.

I cannot emphasize enough how powerful the approach appears to be:

It’s in fact so simple that I suspect it must already be documented somewhere, but for the life of me I couldn’t find anything. So here you go. I think this will be very useful for EDSL designers out here.

A toy DSL for flow diagrams

So let’s say our EDSL is supposed to encode flow diagrams, with boxes and wires. Boxes have distinguished inputs and outputs, and wires flow from outputs of boxes to inputs of other boxes.

We can encode any flow diagram using the following operations:


data Flow a b where
  -- just a wire
  Id :: Flow a a
  -- putting two boxes one after the other
  Seq :: Flow a b -> Flow b c -> Flow a c
  -- putting two boxes one next to the other
  Par :: Flow a b -> Flow c d -> Flow (a, c) (b, d)
  -- box that duplicates its input
  Dup :: Flow a (a, a)
  -- box that gets rid of its input
  Void :: Flow a ()
  -- box that projects on first input
  Fst :: Flow (a, b) a
  -- box that projects on second input
  Snd :: Flow (a, b) b
  -- finally, we embed any pure function into a box
  Embed :: (a -> b) -> Flow a b

There are probably enough constructors here to claim it is a cartesian category, but I didn’t double check and it doesn’t really matter here.

I think we can agree that although this may very well be the right abstraction to internally transform and reason about diagrams, what an awful, awful way to write them. Even if we provided a bunch of weird infix operators for some of the constructors, only few Haskellers would be able to make sense of this gibberish.

What I want is a way to write these diagrams down using lambda abstractions and variable bindings, that get translated to this internal representation.

We can give an instance for both Category Flow and Arrow Flow:

import Control.Category
import Control.Arrow

instance Category Flow where id = Id ; g . f = Seq f g

instance Arrow Flow where
  arr     = Embed
  first f = Par f id
  second  = Par id
  (***)   = Par
  f &&& g = Seq Dup (Par f g)

We can even give a custom implementation for every Arrow operation. And yet, we’re left with nothing more than disappointment when we attempt to use the proc notation: Haskell’s desugarer for the proc notation is really dumb.

{-# LANGUAGE Arrows #-}

t :: Flow (a, b) (b, a)
t = proc (x, y) -> returnA -< (y, x)

If you print the term, you get something like this:

Seq (Embed(_)) (Seq (Embed(_)) (Embed(_)))

We just wrote swap. But Haskell doesn’t even try to use the operations we’ve just defined in Arrow Flow, and just lifts pure Haskell functions using arr. The terms you get are not inspectable, they are black boxes. Not. good. Granted, morphisms Fst and Snd are not part of the interface of Arrow, so this example is a bit unfair. But if you’ve used the proc notation at all, you know this isn’t an isolated incident, and arr eventually always shows up.

What I’m gonna show you is how to enable the following, straight-to-the-point syntax:

t :: Flow (a, b) (b, a)
t = flow \(Tup x y) -> Tup y x

That reduces to the following term:

t = Seq Dup (Par (Seq Id Snd) (Seq Id Fst))

How beautiful! Sure, it’s not the most optimal representation, and a traversal over the term could simplify it by removing Seq Id, but at the very least it’s fully inspectable.

The solution

Now my solution stems from this truly amazing paper from Jean-Philippe Bernardy and Arnaud Spiwack: Evaluating Linear Functions to Symmetric Monoidal Categories (SMCs).

In this paper, they explain that if CCCs are models of the simply typed lambda calculus, it is “well-known” that SMCs are models of the linear simply-typed lambda calculus. And thus, they show how they are able to evaluate linear functions (as in, Linear Haskell linear functions) into arrows in any target SMC of your choice.

They even released a library for that: linear-smc. I implore you to go and take a look at both the paper and the library, it’s very very smart. Sadly, it seems to have gone mostly unnoticed.

This paper was the tipping point. Because my target category is cartesian (ergo, I can duplicate values), I suspected that I could remove almost all the complex machinery they had to employ to go from a free cartesian category over a SMC to the underlying SMC. I was hopeful that I could ditch Linear Haskell, too.

And, relieved as I am, I can tell you that yes: not only can all of this be simplified (if you don’t care about SMCs or Linear Haskell), but everything can be implemented in a handful lines of Haskell code.


So, the first thing we’re gonna look at is the interface exposed to the users of your EDSL. These are the magic primitives that we will have to implement.

type Port r a

First there is this (abstract) type Port r a. It is meant to represent the output of a box (in our flow diagrams) carrying information of type a.

Because the definition of Port r a is not exported, there is crucially no way for the user to retrieve a value of type a from it. Therefore, to use a “port variable” in any meaningful way, they can only use the operations on ports that you — the library designer — export.

And now, the two other necessary primitives:

encode :: Flow a b -> Port r a -> Port r b
decode :: (forall r. Port r a -> Port r b) -> Flow a b

encode and decode can be defined for any Category k. But if k is also cartesian, we can provide the following additional primitives:

pair :: Port r a -> Port r b -> Port r (a, b)
unit :: Port r ()

And… that’s all you need!

Now of course you’re free to include in your API your own morphisms converted into functions over ports. This would allow you to fully hide from the world your internal representation of diagrams. And to do that, you only need to use the previous primitives:

flow = decode

fst :: Port r (a, b) -> Port r a
fst = encode Fst

snd :: Port r (a, b) -> Port r b
snd = encode Snd

split :: Port r (a, b) -> (Port r a, Port r b)
split p = (fst p, snd p)

pattern Tup x y <- (split -> (x, y))
  where Tup x y = pair x y

void :: Port r a -> Port r ()
void = encode Void

box :: (a -> b) -> Port r a -> Port r b
box f = encode (Embed f)

(>>) :: Port r a -> Port r b -> Port r b
x >> y = snd (pair x y)

You can see I use PatternSynonyms and ViewPatterns to define this Tup syntax that appeared earlier. Because I defined this (>>) operator to discard its first port, we can use QualifiedDo to have an even nicer syntax for putting all ports in parallel and discard all but the last one:

box1 :: Port r Text -> Port r (Int, Int)
box2 :: Port r Text -> Port r Bool
box3 :: Port r Int -> Port r ()
box4 :: Port r Int -> Port r ()

diag :: Flow (Text, Text) Bool
diag = flow \(Tup x y) -> Flow.do
  let Tup a b = box1 x
  box3 a
  box4 b
  box2 y

Because (>>) is defined in such a way, box1, box3 and box4 will appear in the resulting diagram even though their output gets discarded. Were we to define x >> y = y, they would simply disappear altogether. This technique gives a lot of control over how the translation should be specified.

Finally and most importantly, box is the only way to introduce pure Haskell functions a -> b into a black box in our diagram. For this reason, we can be sure that Embed will never show up if box isn’t used explicitely by the user. If your category has no embedding of Haskell functions, or does not export it, it’s impossible to insert them, ever.


And now, the big reveal… Ports r a are just morphisms from r to a in your category!

This is the implementation of the primitives from earlier.

newtype Port r a = P { unPort:: Flow r a }

encode :: Flow a b -> Port r a -> Port r b
encode f (P x) = P (f . x)

decode :: (forall r. Port r a -> Port r b) -> Flow a b
decode f = unPort (f (P id))

pair :: Port r a -> Port r b -> Port r (a, b)
pair (P x) (P y) = P (x &&& y)

unit :: Port r ()
unit = P Void

And indeed, if you consider Port r a to represent paths from some input r to output a in a diagram, then by squinting your eyes a bit the meaning (in your category) of this interface makes sense.

It would appear encode and decode being inverse of one another is yet another instance of the Yoneda lemma, but I’m not a categorician so I will not attempt to explain this any more than that, apologies.

Still, the sheer simplicity of this technique is mesmerizing to me. It kinda looks like doing CPS, but it isn’t CPS. Quoting the paper:

the encoding from k a b to P k r a ⊸ P k r b can be thought of as a transformation to continuation-passing-style (cps), albeit reversed — perhaps a “prefix-passing-style” transformation.

Apparently it is the dual of CPS or something.

And you can double-check that in order to implement encode and decode you just need id and (.). Now to allow more stuff than just composing morphisms as functions, more primitives can be added, like pair using (&&&), and unit using Void :: Flow a () — which may or may not be available, dependending on the kind of categories you’re working with.

Some things to be wary of

Ok, so now we’ve seen how to successfully “overload” the lambda abstraction. But there is one quirk that I think you should be aware of.

Preventing (too much) duplication in the diagram

If you look at the definition of split p, you can see that the input p gets duplicated in the two output ports. If both of them are used in a given diagram, p will appear at least twice in this diagram. Now in the abstract setting of category theory, duplication in your diagram doesn’t matter because of the equivalences and laws that equate diagrams.

However, we’re trying to encode useful things. My original motivation for going to this deep end was modeling flow diagrams of effectful computations, for the new version of achille. You could imagine changing the Embed constructor of Flow to the following:

Embed :: (a -> IO b) -> Flow a b

From then on, encoded flow diagrams are meant to be executed — and even parallelised for free, how neat — but I hope you see now why we should never ever duplicate any such Embed box anymore. In the paper, that’s why they argue it’s important to restrict yourself to monoidal categories and linear functions, and make copy an explicit operation in your syntax.

copy :: Port r a %1 -> (Port r a, Port r a)

Indeed, the type system will prevent you to use a variable more than once without explicitly inserting copy. However, everything has to be made linear and this has huge implications on the user-friendliness of the overall syntax. I’ve also found error messages from Linear Haskell to be pretty uninformative — and let bindings are not linear, what??.

Instead, I came up with a solution I’m fairly happy with. There is a trick: we introduce a new primitive.

(>>=) :: Port r a -> (Port r a -> Port r b) -> Port r b

Now of course, you could just implement it as x >>= f = f x, but that’s precisely what we want to avoid. No, instead, I force the evaluation of x, and then evaluate f applied to a box that simply returns the pre-computed value, side-effect free. So a box gets duplicated, sure, but this box does nothing. What I am now noticing while writing this down, is that introducing this Bind operator makes the diagram non-inspectable again, oops. I can still run it of course, but this is a problem for future me.

Anyway, the benefit of this (>>=) operator is that it’s very convenient with QualifiedDo:

diag :: Flow FilePath Bool
diag = flow \src -> Flow.do
  Tup a b <- box1 src
  box3 a
  box4 (box2 b)

You just have to stop using let and you’re good to go. What’s remarkable in the syntax is that these effectful boxes are used as plain old functions. Therefore there is no need to clutter the syntax with <$>, >>=, pure, -<, returnA and a bind for every single arrow like in the proc notation: you just compose and apply them like regular functions — even when they are effectful.

Compile vs. Evaluate

Now the paper is called “Evaluating […]” and says there is a runtime cost to pay for the translation. Considering how simple this implementation is, and how the target is fully first-order (well, without (>>=)), I wouldn’t be surprised if GHC is actually able to fully unfold and translate to category morphisms at compile-time. But I’m not an expert Haskell developer by any means and have no clue how one would go about checking this, so if anyone does, please tell me!

Expressive power

I’m very curious to see which kind of categories you can “compile” Haskell functions to using this technique. I didn’t expect converting to cartesian category’s morphisms to be so straightforward, and I’m looking forward to see whether there is any fundamental limitation preventing us to do the same for CCCs.

Recursive morphisms and infinite structures

Someone asked on Reddit whether recursive morphisms can be written out using this syntax, wihtout making decode loop forever. I’ve thought about it for a bit, and I think precisely because this is not CPS and we construct morphisms k a b rather than Haskell functions, decode should not be a problem. It should produce recursive morphisms where recursive occurences are guarded by constructors. Because of laziness, looping is not a concern.

But I haven’t tried this out yet. Since in achille recursive recipes can be quite useful, I want to support them, and so I will definitely investigate further.

Thank you for reading! I hope this was or will be useful to some of you. I am also very grateful for Bernardy and Spiwack’s fascinating paper and library, it quite literally made my week.

Feel free to go on the r/haskell thread related to this post.

Till next time, perhaps when I manage to release the next version of achille, using this very trick that I had been desperately looking for in the past 2 years.