Union Type in Idris (Part 5)

Posted on August 14, 2016 by Nicolas Biri

Go back to the first part.

Unit and property testing in Idris

I thought I was done with the union type series, but then I think about how great this example is to demonstrate some of the possibilities of test and property checking in Idris.

Idris has a basic testing framework. I won’t discuss it here. As Idris is very young, the framework has little interest at this time and we can do way better (in my opinion) by just using types in a clever way.

Unit testing at compile time

As types are a first class language construct in Idris, you can use value to build type. An interesting type constructor is =. The type a = b is populated by the proof that a is euqal to be b. To construct inhabitants of this class, we often use Refl, which is an inhabitant of a = a (We already used Refl in the definitions of isomorphisms in part 4.)

This can be used to define unit testing functions, that will be resolved at compile time. If we go back to the definition of Union and ot the member constructor

data Union : List Type -> Type where
  MemberHere : ty -> Union (ty::ts)
  MemberThere : Union ts -> Union (ty::ts)

member : ty -> {auto e: Elem ty ts} -> Union ts
member x {e = Here} = MemberHere x
member x {e = There later} =
  MemberThere (member x {e = later})

We can quickly set up some tests:

memberCreateMemberHereTest :
  the (Union [String, Nat]) (member "Foo") =
  MemberHere "Foo"
memberCreateMemberHereTest = Refl


memberCreateMemberThereTest :
  the (Union [String, Nat]) (member 42) =
  MemberThere (MemberHere 42)
memberCreateMemberThereTest = Refl

These tests will be executed at compile time and will pass if our definition are correct. No need for a framework.Moreover, if we ship a faulty version without testing, thrd users won’t be able to use the library because they won’t be able to compile our code.

Theorem proving (or enhanced property testing)

Tests prove that your definitions are correct for some values, theorem prove that it’s correct for all values. Even with something as simple as the Union library, we can prove fancy stuff.

Let’s get a member

First, let’s recall the definition of get:

get : Union ts -> {auto p: Elem ty ts} -> Maybe ty
get (MemberHere x)      {p = Here}      = Just x
get (MemberHere x)      {p = There _}   = Nothing
get (MemberThere x)     {p = Here}      = Nothing
get (MemberThere later) {p = (There l)} = get later {p = l}

It’s quite natural to see get as the invert of member. Let’s formalise it with some properties.

To warm up, we’ll write a first one that just work for a trivial case: one type union. We want to check that if we build a one typ uninon with member and get ot back, we obtain Just. It’s as simple as writing this description:

getHereMemberIsJust : (x : a) -> get (member x) = Just x
getHereMemberIsJust _ = Refl

Let’s go further and prove something similar for more complex unions. To do so, we must be able to reason on which type we populated. To do so, we will make the Elem ty ts implicit parameter of member and get explicit.

If we create a union with member at a place given by Elem ty ts and check the value at the same place with get, we should have Just the value:

getMemberWithElemIsJust :
  (x : a) ->
  (p : Elem a xs) ->
  the (Maybe a) (get (member x {p}) {p}) = Just x

This prove is trickier thant the previous one. It should be proved by induction on p. The base case is easy. if p = Here, the compiler will reduce both part of the equality by itself and we only has to prove a straight forward equality:

getMemberWithElemIsJust _ Here = Refl

The induction case is quite easy too now thanks to the previous case hypothesis.

It’s time for me to introduce the interactive proof facilities of Idris. Actually, I should have done it way earlier but it’s one of this thing that seems so natural to use that you forgot to mention how great it is.

The Idris REPL, and many compatible editors, provide some helpful command to ease type driven development. One of them is being able to define holes in your code and to check their type. More details about TDD and interactive development in Idris can be found in the online documentation or in the excellent Idris book.

Now that you know it, we can use hole in our induction case:

getMemberWithElemIsJust x (There later) = ?wut

?wut is our hole, and if we ask to the compiler its type, we obtain:

  a : Type
  x : a
  xs : List Type
  later : Elem a xs
  y : Type
wut : get (member x) = Just x

Idris provides a recap of all the types in the context, and display the expected type for wut. With the context information, Idris was able, by itself, to reduce wut to the type of the induction hypothesis. Thus, we just have to provide it:

getMemberWithElemIsJust x (There later) =
  getMemberWithElemIsJust x later

And that’s it. We have a complete proof that if we put a value at a given place of a union and if we get the value at the same place, we obtain Just this value.

The difficulty of theorem proving (digression)

The above proofs are almost trivial when you are used to types and to theorem proving. However, it may be hard to grasp for newcomers. Actually, these small examples can be used to illustrate the difficulties encountered by the advocates of formally proved code to convince developpers and the industry.

To be honest, I had few experiences with formal proof education to devleopers. However, during these experiences, I encountered two majors objections:

  1. The properties I want to test are not complex enough to require a whole proof, proving that it works for some values, or for a set of random value is sufficient.
  2. When I have to encode a proof, I have to formalize a work that I have already done mentally when I wrote the code, in a non-natural way.

Both objections are unfortunately valid in most cases. We can however mitigates this feeling by:

  1. What if, for almost the same costs, as unit or properties tests, you can be sure that it is valid for all the values.
  2. Providing helpful enough programing environment to mae the formalisation process as natural as possible.

Moreover, I should emphasize one of the major advantages of formal proof embedded in a library, that I’ve already mentioned in the article. These proofs of properties can be seen as a contract that my library ensure to respect. It offers garantees about third party code and thus can higly reduce the lack of confidence that I can have in those libraries.