Rank-n functions in Rust?

Rank-n functions in Rust?

Haskell, Rust, existential, functions, rank-n

2018-05-19 12:48:00 UTC, by Dimitri Sabadie

Yesterday, I came across a very simple problem that I summed up here. The idea is the following:

In Haskell, you would represent this scenario like this:

data T = T -- we’re not interested in this type yet

        --     v this is F
foo :: ((() -> T) -> b) -> b
         -- ^ this is Λ

-- or for people less familiar with Haskell, here’s a decomposed version (but still the same thing)
type Λ = () -> T
type F b :: Λ -> b
foo :: F b -> b

Note: it’s pretty much known in the Haskell world but maybe not in others: if you have a value, like a, it’s isomorphic to a unary function that returns this value and takes () as single argument – () -> a.

Note²: for curious, in Haskell, the syntax a ->. b is a linear arrow. More about this on linear Haskell. I didn’t include the syntax in the snippet because it would make the post too complicated for our purpose.

Note³: this is a rank-2 type function, because it’s a function that takes a function (1) that takes another function (2). There’re levels of “nesting” there.

In Rust, argh… Rust is not as powerful as Haskell for complex abstractions – even though we’re working on making it better and better. To me, Rust competes with Haskell, but the current blog post will show you that it still has a lot to learn from its parent! :)

Let’s sketch something in Rust.

struct T; // we’re not interested in this type yet

fn foo<F, B>(f: F) -> B where F: FnOnce(???) -> B {
  f(|| 42)

What should we put in place of the ??? placeholder? Clearly, looking at the Haskell snippet, we want a function that produces a T. Something like that:

fn lambda() -> T

So we could use the type fn () -> T, but that will not work, because a lambda has not such a type – you can see the lambda || 42. Let’s try something else.

fn foo<F, B>(f: F) -> B where F: FnOnce(impl FnOnce() -> T) -> B

If you look at the impl Trait RFC, you see that it’s a Rust construct to build a contract that lets you handle a value through traits without knowing the type – we call that an existential. The type is picked by the callee, which in our case is the function itself.

However, this syntax doesn’t work because – as for now – impl Trait works only in return position and the consensus seems to have agreed that when impl Trait will be implemented in argument position, it will not mean an existential, but a universal, e.g.:

fn bar<I: Iterator<Item = u32>>(i: I)
fn bar<I>(i: I) where I: Iterator<Item = u32>
fn bar(i: impl Iterator<Item = u32>)

Are all the same thing.

Note: I’ve made a ranting about the decision to give universal semantics to impl Trait in argument position here. I don’t want to start a type theory war, if it’s the consensus, then we have to accept it and move on. It’s just a bit a pity. Topic closed, let’s get back to our sheep!

So we cannot use that. Argh! Let’s try something else then!

fn foo<F, G, B>(f: F) -> B where F: FnOnce(G) -> B, G: FnOnce() -> T

This cannot work because here you have two universals F and G, meaning that G will be picked by the caller while you want to decide of its type directly in your function (remember the lambda).

fn foo<F, B>(f: F) -> B where F: for<G: FnOnce() -> T> FnOnce(G) -> B

I like this one a lot. It uses a concept called HRTB in Rust which you can see by the for<_> syntax. However, this will not work because as for today, HRTB only works with lifetimes.

Ok, that seems a bit desperate!

Hm, how about this:

fn foo<F, B>(f: F) -> B where F: FnOnce(Box<FnOnce() -> T) -> B

Even though that seems to typecheck, you won’t ever be able to use Λ here because you cannot move out of a Box with FnOnce. This limitation is removed with the FnBox type:

fn foo<F, B>(f: F) -> B where F: FnOnce(FnBox() -> T) -> B


Ok, that seems desperate. Period.

Well, if we only stick to those tools (i.e. functions, type variables and trait bounds), currently, yeah, there’s no solution. However, if we add the traits to our toys, we can work around the problem:

trait GConsumer {
  type Output;

  fn call_once<G>(self, f: G) -> Self::Output where G: FnOnce() -> i32;

fn foo<F>(f: F) -> F::Output where F: GConsumer {
  f.call_once(|| 32) // hurray!

This snippet is actually quite interesting. We introduce the existential via a trait. The existential is encoded with the G type variable of the call_once method of GConsumer. If you look at that function from foo perspective, G is definitely an existential! – and it’s a universal for call_once.

I really like this idea, because it’s simple and legacy Rust. But I feel a bit confused, because it’s simple to define but hard to use. Instead of just passing a closure to foo, people will now have to implement a separate type on which will be called call_once. That’s a lot of boilerplate.

I hope we’ll come to a better solution to this problem – if you can do it with any trait, it should be possible with FnOnce and a few candies into the Rust language itself.

That’s all for me for today. Keep the vibes and have a nice weekend!