Joachim Breitner

The magic “Just do it” type class

Published 2018-02-02 in sections English, Haskell.

One of the great strengths of strongly typed functional programming is that it allows type driven development. When I have some non-trivial function to write, I first write its type signature, and then the writing the implementation often very obvious.

Once more, I am feeling silly

In fact, it often is completely mechanical. Consider the following function:

foo :: (r -> Either e a) -> (a -> (r -> Either e b)) -> (r -> Either e (a,b))

This is somewhat like the bind for a combination of the error monad and the reader monad, and remembers the intermediate result, but that doesn’t really matter now. What matters is that once I wrote that type signature, I feel silly having to also write the code, because there isn’t really anything interesting about that.

Instead, I’d like to tell the compiler to just do it for me! I want to be able to write

foo :: (r -> Either e a) -> (a -> (r -> Either e b)) -> (r -> Either e (a,b))
foo = justDoIt

And now I can! Assuming I am using GHC HEAD (or eventually GHC 8.6), I can run cabal install ghc-justdoit, and then the following code actually works:

{-# OPTIONS_GHC -fplugin=GHC.JustDoIt.Plugin #-}
import GHC.JustDoIt
foo :: (r -> Either e a) -> (a -> (r -> Either e b)) -> (r -> Either e (a,b))
foo = justDoIt

What is this justDoIt?

*GHC.LJT GHC.JustDoIt> :browse GHC.JustDoIt
class JustDoIt a
justDoIt :: JustDoIt a => a
(…) :: JustDoIt a => a

Note that there are no instances for the JustDoIt class -- they are created, on the fly, by the GHC plugin GHC.JustDoIt.Plugin. During type-checking, it looks as these JustDoIt t constraints and tries to construct a term of type t. It is based on Dyckhoff’s LJT proof search in intuitionistic propositional calculus, which I have implemented to work directly on GHC’s types and terms (and I find it pretty slick). Those who like Unicode can write (…) instead.

What is supported right now?

Because I am working directly in GHC’s representation, it is pretty easy to support user-defined data types and newtypes. So it works just as well for

data Result a b = Failure a | Success b
newtype ErrRead r e a = ErrRead { unErrRead :: r -> Result e a }
foo2 :: ErrRead r e a -> (a -> ErrRead r e b) -> ErrRead r e (a,b)
foo2 = (…)

It doesn’t infer coercions or type arguments or any of that fancy stuff, and carefully steps around anything that looks like it might be recursive.

How do I know that it creates a sensible implementation?

You can check the generated Core using -ddump-simpl of course. But it is much more convenient to use inspection-testing to test such things, as I am doing in the Demo file, which you can skim to see a few more examples of justDoIt in action. I very much enjoyed reaping the benefits of the work I put into inspection-testing, as this is so much more convenient than manually checking the output.

Is this for real? Should I use it?

Of course you are welcome to play around with it, and it will not launch any missiles, but at the moment, I consider this a prototype that I created for two purposes:

  • To demonstrates that you can use type checker plugins for program synthesis. Depending on what you need, this might allow you to provide a smoother user experience than the alternatives, which are:

    • Preprocessors
    • Template Haskell
    • Generic programming together with type-level computation (e.g. generic-lens)
    • GHC Core-to-Core plugins

    In order to make this viable, I slightly changed the API for type checker plugins, which are now free to produce arbitrary Core terms as they solve constraints.

  • To advertise the idea of taking type-driven computation to its logical conclusion and free users from having to implement functions that they have already specified sufficiently precisely by their type.

What needs to happen for this to become real?

A bunch of things:

  • The LJT implementation is somewhat neat, but I probably did not implement backtracking properly, and there might be more bugs.
  • The implementation is very much unoptimized.
  • For this to be practically useful, the user needs to be able to use it with confidence. In particular, the user should be able to predict what code comes out. If there a multiple possible implementations, i.e. a clear specification which implementations are more desirable than others, and it should probably fail if there is ambiguity.
  • It ignores any recursive type, so it cannot do anything with lists. It would be much more useful if it could do some best-effort thing here as well.

If someone wants to pick it up from here, that’d be great!

I have seen this before…

Indeed, the idea is not new.

Most famously in the Haskell work is certainly Lennart Augustssons’s Djinn tool that creates Haskell source expression based on types. Alejandro Serrano has connected that to GHC in the library djinn-ghc, but I coudn’t use this because it was still outputting Haskell source terms (and it is easier to re-implement LJT rather than to implement type inference).

Lennart Spitzner’s exference is a much more sophisticated tool that also takes library API functions into account.

In the Scala world, Sergei Winitzki very recently presented the pretty neat curryhoward library that uses for Scala macros. He seems to have some good ideas about ordering solutions by likely desirability.

And in Idris, Joomy Korkut has created hezarfen.


Interesting post. This reminded me of the beginning chapters of Edwin Brady's "Type Driven Development with Idris", which walk through developing simple programs type-first using the "Atom" editor and some plugins that mean the writer can press key-combinations to auto-derive e.g. complete pattern matches.

#1 Jonathan Dowland am 2018-02-05

In order to ensure that the inferred function is the desired one, one may want to restrict justDoIt to work on type with a unique inhabitant. It's more restrictive, but it's quite a bit easier than checking the output ourselves! It's not a domain I'm particularly familiar with, but you may be interested in Gabriel Scherer's work on the subject.

#2 Arnaud Spiwack am 2018-02-08

Have something to say? You can post a comment by sending an e-Mail to me at <>, and I will include it here.