#### 2012-08-28: System F: Interpreter and Type Checker

The source for this post is online at 2012-08-28-system-f-hoas.rkt.

Categories: Racket Lambda Calculus

System F is a very powerful programming and type system. It is fun to make an interpreter for, but I think it is even more fun to write such an interpreter using higher-order abstract syntax. In this post, I describe how a normal System F interpreter works and next week we’ll see the HOAS version.

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System F is basically the same as the normal Lambda Calculus, except that it has first-class, explicit polymorphism.

Its program terms are: identifiers, applications, type applications (for instantiating polymorphism), abstractions (value functions), and type abstractions (type functions, or points of polymorphism). For the purposes of making the code more meaningful, I’ll also add primitive numbers and the successor function.

 (struct ID (sym)) (struct APP (rator rand)) (struct TYAPP (rator rand)) (struct ABS (typ sym body)) (struct TYABS (sym body)) (struct NUM (val) #:transparent) (struct SUCC ())

Its type terms are: type identifiers, arrows and type arrows (for the two kinds of abstraction). I’ll also add a primitive number type.

 (struct TYID (sym) #:transparent) (struct ARR (dom rng) #:transparent) (struct TYARR (sym body) #:transparent) (struct TYNUM () #:transparent)

Here’s an example function: the polymorphic doubling function that applies its argument twice.

 (define DOUBLE (TYABS 'X (ABS (ARR (TYID 'X) (TYID 'X)) 'f (ABS (TYID 'X) 'a (APP (ID 'f) (APP (ID 'f) (ID 'a)))))))

And example use of the function gives it the successor function and calls it with the number 3.

 (APP (APP (TYAPP DOUBLE (TYNUM)) (SUCC)) (NUM 3))

When we run this program, we would expect it to return 5.

An interpreter for this language is fairly obvious:

<eval> ::=
 (define eval (match-lambda [(APP rator rand) (match (eval rator) [(ABS _ id body) (eval (subst id (eval rand) body))] [(SUCC) (match (eval rand) [(NUM n) (NUM (add1 n))])])] [(TYAPP rator rand) (match (eval rator) [(TYABS id body) (eval (type-subst id rand body))])] [val val]))

But it relies on two substitution functions: one for value abstractions and another for type abstractions. These functions, while not especially complicated, are tedious to write and only get more complicated as binding rules become more complex.

 (define (subst x v t) (match t [(ID sym) (if (eq? x sym) v t)] [(SUCC) t] [(APP rator rand) (APP (subst x v rator) (subst x v rand))] [(ABS ty id body) (if (eq? id x) t (ABS ty id (subst x v body)))])) (define (type-subst x v t) (match t [(SUCC) t] [(TYID sym) (if (eq? sym x) v t)] [(APP rator rand) (APP (type-subst x v rator) (type-subst x v rand))] [(ABS ty id body) (ABS (type-subst x v ty) id (type-subst x v body))] [(ARR dom rng) (ARR (type-subst x v dom) (type-subst x v rng))] [(ID sym) t]))

But, this language does not just have runtime behavior, we also need a type checker. As test cases, we’ll type the example and this program, which contains a type error:

 (APP (APP (TYAPP DOUBLE (TYNUM)) (ABS (TYNUM) 'N (ABS (TYNUM) 'U (ID 'N)))) (NUM 3))

The type checker is fairly straight-forward relative to the evaluator. We won’t do substitution for value abstraction, instead we’ll keep a type environment. We will need to do substitution for type applications, though.

 (define (type-of t) (type-of/env (hasheq) t)) (define (type-of/env env t) (match t [(ID sym) (hash-ref env sym)] [(ABS ty id body) (ARR ty (type-of/env (hash-set env id ty) body))] [(APP rator rand) (match (type-of/env env rator) [(ARR dom rng) (and (equal? dom (type-of/env env rand)) rng)] [_ #f])] [(TYAPP rator rand) (match (type-of/env env rator) [(TYARR id body) (type-of/env env (type-subst id rand body))] [_ #f])] [(TYABS id body) (TYARR id body)] [(SUCC) (ARR (TYNUM) (TYNUM))] [(NUM _) (TYNUM)] [_ #f]))

At this point, we have a basic and obvious implementation of System F. There are a few things annoying about it though, mainly to do with how we have to deal with identifiers through the tedious substitution function and the ugly use of a type environment.

In the next post, we’ll see how to remedy this through the use of higher-order abstract syntax.

By the way, if you use this code at home, make sure you put the code in this order:

<*> ::=
 (require racket/match) (require rackunit) (check-equal? (eval ) (NUM 5)) (check-equal? (type-of ) (TYNUM)) (check-equal? (type-of ) #f)