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Don't Fear the Profunctor Optics (Part 3/3)

PREVIOUSLY: Profunctors as Generalized Functions

Profunctor Optics

Profunctor, as concrete, is just another representation for optics. The general structure for profunctor optics is the next one:

type Optic s t a b = forall p . (C0 p, ..., CN p) => p a b -> p s t

So, every optic defined using this representation should know how to turn a p a b into a p s t, for any type p (notice the universal quantification forall), as long as it satisfies certain constraints (C0, CN, etc.), which will vary depending on the particular optic we want to represent. What does this mean? Previously, we said that we can see this profunctors as generalizations of functions, and we represented them as boxes. Besides, we could appreciate that optics in general, are abstractions that deal with polymorphic focus and whole values. Having said so, the alias we have just shown tells us that in order to fulfill an optic, we must determine how to take any generalized function on the focus to its counterpart on the whole.

For each optic kind, we'll show how to expand a focus box into a whole box, using our diagram notation and the concrete representation. That will determine the minimal constraints that are needed to conform the particular optic. Then, we'll follow the opposite direction, bringing the concrete representation from the profunctor one. Finally, the examples which were shown in the first installment (π1, the, etc.) of this post series will be redefined with the new representation.

Profunctor Adapter

We'll start by Adapter, given its simple nature. Recall that we'll be facing the same problem for every optic kind: we need to turn a p a b into a p s t, given any p that satisfies the particular constraints. Undoubtedly, the extension process will be different for each case. Particularly, we saw that adapters are represented concretely by means of from :: s -> a and to :: b -> t. How could we get a p s t given p a b (for any type constructor p) and this pair of functions? We show it in the next picture:


Thereby, the only feature that we require to extend h :: p a b into p s t is Profunctor's dimap. That's why profunctor adapters are represented as follows:

type AdapterP s t a b = forall p . Profunctor p => p a b -> p s t

In fact, we could translate the diagram above into Haskell this way:

adapterC2P :: Adapter s t a b -> AdapterP s t a b
adapterC2P (Adapter f t) = dimap f t

Conversely, how do we recover the concrete representation from the profunctor one? To do so, we need to use a specific profunctor instance for each operator of the concrete representation (from & to). For instance, we require UpStar Constant and Tagged to recover from and to, respectively:

from' :: AdapterP s t a b -> s -> a
from' ad = getConstant . runUpStar (ad (UpStar Constant))

to' :: AdapterP s t a b -> b -> t
to' ad = unTagged . ad . Tagged

These definitions, though simple, are not straightforward at all. By now, we're more than happy if you feel comfortable with the diagrams.

Finally, we'll redefine the original shift example, that we show again as a reminder:

shift :: Adapter ((a, b), c) ((a', b'), c') (a, (b, c)) (a', (b', c'))
shift = Adapter f t where
  f ((a, b), c) = (a, (b, c))
  t (a', (b', c')) = ((a', b'), c')

Using the new profunctor representation for adapters we get:

shift' :: AdapterP ((a, b), c) ((a', b'), c') (a, (b, c)) (a', (b', c'))
shift' = dimap assoc assoc' where
  assoc  ((x, y), z) = (x, (y, z))
  assoc' (x, (y, z)) = ((x, y), z)

Profunctor Lens

Next, we'll try to define lenses. Its concrete optic is a little bit more complex, containing view :: s -> a and update :: (b, s) -> t. It seems trivial to extend p a b in the left with view, to get a p s b. However, we can't use update in the right, since it requires not only a b but also a s. If we review our toolbox, we know that it's possible to have the original s passing through, living along with the original box using cartesian. This is how we build a lens diagram from p a b:


There's a new component which simply replicates the input, to make it interoperable with a multi-input box. Since we only require Profunctor and Cartesian, our profunctor lens is represented as follows:

type LensP s t a b = forall p . Cartesian p => p a b -> p s t

And this is how we encode the previous diagram:

lensC2P :: Lens s t a b -> LensP s t a b
lensC2P (Lens v u) = dimap dup u . first . lmap v where
  dup a = (a, a)

On the other hand, we could recover the concrete lens from a profunctor lens by using UpStar Constant and -> instances:

view' :: LensP s t a b -> s -> a
view' ln = getConstant . runUpStar (ln (UpStar Constant))

update' :: LensP s t a b -> (b, s) -> t
update' ln (b, s) = ln (const b) s

Now it's turn to redefine π1. It was originally defined as follows::

π1 :: Lens (a, c) (b, c) a b
π1 = Lens v u where
  v = fst
  u (b, (_, c)) = (b, c)

You might be surprised with the profunctor representation:

π1' :: LensP (a, c) (b, c) a b
π1' = first

Indeed, first provides all we need to access the first component of a tuple! Similarly, second could serve us to access the corresponding second component.

Profunctor Prism

Now, it's the turn for profunctor prisms. Recall that the concrete definition contains match :: s -> a + t and build :: b -> t. Again, if we want to extend our p a b into a p s t we're gonna need some help. The resulting picture for a prism circuit is represented in the next picture:


There, p a b is extended with build on the right. Then, it's required to include a lower exclusive path for non-existing focus. Choosing between one path or another will be determined by the switch input, which is in turn determined by match. Finally, a tiny adaptation on the right is applied, to turn a t + t into a t. From this diagram, we can infer that a prism depends on Cocartesian:

type PrismP s t a b = forall p . Cocartesian p => p a b -> p s t

As usual, here it is the textual version of the diagram above:

prismC2P :: Prism s t a b -> PrismP s t a b
prismC2P (Prism m b) = dimap m (either id id) . left . rmap b

The instances that should be fed to a profunctor prism in order to recover a concrete prism are UpStar (Either a) and Tagged:

match' :: PrismP s t a b -> s -> Either a t
match' pr = runUpStar (pr (UpStar Left))

build' :: PrismP s t a b -> b -> t
build' pr = unTagged . pr . Tagged

Remember concrete the? It focus on the a hidden behind a Maybe a:

the :: Prism (Maybe a) (Maybe b) a b
the = Prism (maybe (Right Nothing) Left) Just

We can redefine it with our brand new profunctor prism:

the' :: PrismP (Maybe a) (Maybe b) a b
the' = dimap (maybe (Right Nothing) Left) (either Just id) . left

Profunctor Affine

Previously, we saw that preview :: s -> a + t and set :: (b, s) -> t are the primitives that conform concrete affines. This time, turning h :: p a b into p s t will require several features. This is what we need to achieve it:


Thereby, we apply the original generalized function only if the focus exists. In that case, we still need the original whole value to be able to apply set. Finally, if our focus wasn't there, we can select the lower path directly. Since we used cartesian and cocartesian features, this leads to this alias for affine:

type AffineP s t a b = forall p . (Cartesian p, Cocartesian p) => p a b -> p s t

Our diagram is translated into Haskell this way:

affineC2P :: Affine s t a b -> AffineP s t a b
affineC2P (Affine p st) = dimap preview' merge . left . rmap st . first where
  preview' s = either (\a -> Left (a, s)) Right (p s)
  merge = either id id

As usual, we can go back to concrete affine as well:

preview' :: AffineP s t a b -> s -> Either a t
preview' af = runUpStar (af (UpStar Left))

set' :: AffineP s t a b -> (b, s) -> t
set' af (b, s) = af (const b) s

Finally, we're going to adapt maybeFirst to this new setting:

maybeFirst' :: AffineP (Maybe a, c) (Maybe b, c) a b
maybeFirst' = first . dimap (maybe (Right Nothing) Left) (either Just id) . left

This expression is quite familiar to us, isn't it? It combines somehow the implementations of π1' and the'. In fact, this snippet compiles nicely:

maybeFirst'' :: AffineP (Maybe a, c) (Maybe b, c) a b
maybeFirst'' = π1' . the'

We're composing different optic kinds with .! What has just happened?!?! We'll come back to composition later, but you know what? You have been composing optics for all this time! Indeed, first, left, dimap f g... are methods that turn generalized functions on a focus into generalized functions on a whole. As you can tell, we've been extensively composing them by means of . to conform our diagrams.

Profunctor Traversal

Recall that we defined our fake traversal in terms of contents :: s -> [a] and fill :: ([b], s) -> t. We should be able to pass every focus value through our original h :: p a b and collect the results. Here it's the corresponding diagram:


This definition is quite complex, huh? It even requires recursion! (Notice that the inner yellow box corresponds with the outer yellow one) Broadly, we are extracting the list of focus values and passing them through our original generalized function. However, since this list could be empty, we need to consider an alternative path, which is used as the recursion base case. We need monoidal to make both recursive box and original h coexist. Since traversals require contextual information when updating, cartesian is also necessary. As new elements, there is / which turns a Cons into a head-tail tuple and : which does exactly the inverse operation. The rest of the diagram should be straightforward. We represent profunctor traversals as follows:

type TraversalP s t a b = forall p . (Cartesian p, Cocartesian p, Monoidal p) => p a b -> p s t

Here's the code associated to the diagram:

traversalC2P :: Traversal s t a b -> TraversalP s t a b
traversalC2P (Traversal c f) = dimap dup f . first . lmap c . ylw where
  ylw h = dimap (maybe (Right []) Left . uncons) merge $ left $ rmap cons $ par h (ylw h)
  cons = uncurry (:)
  dup a = (a, a)
  merge = either id id

We'll show now how to recover contents, since fill is kind of broken:

contents' :: TraversalP s t a b -> s -> [a]
contents' tr = getConstant . runUpStar (tr (UpStar (\a -> Constant [a])))

Finally, the unsafe concrete firstNSecond example:

firstNSecond :: Traversal (a, a, c) (b, b, c) a b
firstNSecond = Traversal c f where
  c (a1, a2, _)  = [a1, a2]
  f (bs, (_, _, x)) = (head bs, (head . tail) bs, x)

could be adapted to a profunctor traversal as follows:

firstNSecond' :: TraversalP (a, a, c) (b, b, c) a b
firstNSecond' pab = dimap group group' (first (pab `par` pab)) where
  group  (x, y, z) = ((x, y), z)
  group' ((x, y), z) = (x, y, z)

Optic Composition is Function Composition

Undoubtedly, it's easier to read a concrete optic definition than a profunctor optic one. Concrete optics are just a bunch of simple functions that every programmer is comfortable with, while profunctor optics require grasping profunctors and contextualizing them in the problem of updating immutable data structures. Why is this representation so trendy? The thing is that profunctor optics take composability to the next level.

Profunctor optics are essentially functions, and functions enable the most natural way of composition in functional programming. We can compose functions, and therefore profunctor optics, by using .. Given this situation, there's no need to implement a specific combinator for each pair of optics. In fact, first . first or second . left . the are perfectly valid examples of optic composition. Notice that we can even compose optics heterogeneously, as it's evidenced in the last expression, where a lens, a prism and an affine are composed together. But hold a second, which optic results of composing two arbitrary optics? Haskell's elegance helps a lot to answer this question.

When Haskell composes two functions, it merges the constraints imposed for each of them, and set them as constraints for the resulting function. Therefore, if we compose a lens (that depends on cartesian) and a prism (that depends on cocartesian) we end up with an optic that depends on both cartesian and cocartesian. Is this output familiar to you? Of course, it's exactly the definition of AffineP, which is the result of combining a lens with a prism. According to this view, we can see that a traversal, which is the most restrictive optic we've seen in this article, is able to represent the rest of them, though won't be using its full potential when doing so. You can find here a graph that shows this hierarchy.

Now, let's play with composition:

λ> let tr' = π1' . the' . firstNSecond'
λ> contents' tr' (Just ("profunctor", "optics", 'a'), 0)
λ> tr' length (Just ("profunctor", "optics", 'a'), 0)
(Just (10,6,'a'),0)

First of all we compose different optics to generate a traversal. It focuses on the as which are nested in a whole (Maybe (a, a, c), d). Then, we can use contents' to collect them or even feed another profunctor instance. For example, if we use (->) we should get a modify. Therefore, passing length as argument applies the very same function to each focus. This elegance is simply awesome.

On the other hand, we can use our computation diagrams to show a different perspective on profunctor optics composition. This is what happens when we compose a lens with an adpater:


Our lens requires a p a b to produce a p s t. When we embed (or compose) the adapter, we're being more specific about that gap. We still want to produce a p s t, but we don't need a full p a b to do so. We can build it from a smaller j :: p c d computation instead. The resulting diagram uses only Profunctor and Cartesian utilities to be built. Those are exactly the constraints required by lens, so we can determine that composing a lens with an adapter results in another lens, as expected.


In this series, we've introduced optics, profunctors and finally profunctor optics. Particularly, we've been toying around with adapters, lenses, prisms, affines and traversals, but you should take into account that there are many others out there. The contents have been heavily inspired by this paper by Pickering et al. As a consequence, we've tried to remain in line with the conventions adopted in it. In fact, our major contribution relies on providing several diagrams to make profunctors and profunctor optics more approachable. They are mainly based on Hughes' arrows ones.

In general, we've priorized diagram simplicity over code conciseness (since we pursued to emphasize the concrete operators above all). This is evidenced in the Haskell encodings of the profunctor optic diagrams, where the original paper provides nicer implementations. Following with our particular implementation, you might have noticed that some functions that recover concrete operations from profunctor optics are exactly the same, for instance update' and set'. In fact, profunctor optic libraries such as mezzolens don't supply particular interfaces for every optic. Instead, they provide operations for particular profunctors that could be used by arbitrary optics (as long as their constraints allow it).

Instancing profunctor optics from scratch is not straightforward at all. In addition, different instances turn out to follow similar patterns. Therefore we suggest to create the concrete optic manually and then translate it to its profunctor version. In our experience, profunctor optics generated this way might not be the most direct ones, but they are good enough for most of cases.

We've only covered two optic representations, that differ greatly from each other. However, you should know that there are other intermediate representations that we've been avoiding on purpose. The most widespread is Van Laarhoven, which is deployed in Kmett's awesome optic library. For instance, Van Laarhoven lenses look as follows:

type LensVL s t a b = Functor f => (a -> f b) -> (s -> f t)

You can immediately realize that there are many similarities to the profunctor formulation. Try to implement an isomorphism between LensVL and LensP as an exercise. If you're interested on the foundations of this representation, there's an epic post on the categorical view of Van Laarhoven lenses. There's an analogous post for the categorical view of profunctor optics, which I haven't analysed in detail yet.

Finally, we must say that profunctor optics are trendy. Particularly, they're becoming quite relevant in PureScript. We don't know if they will become mainstream in other functional languages, but at least I hope you don't fear them anymore.