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Finite Isomorphic Types (source code)


My interest in isomorphic types all started after reading a somewhat unrelated but enlightening little Reddit comment by Conor McBride. He describes how to create a small universe capable of representing the standard non-dependent algebraic types we all know and love. A nice benefit is that you can write functions that pattern match on the codes of the universe that work for any representable type (i.e. perform generic programming). What this allows you to do is come up with your own incantations of things that deriving would give you in Haskell. For example, Conor gives a generic equality (Eq), but you are free to define whatever comes to mind like Enum, Ord, etc. The real excitement comes from imagining a language whose own type system is bootstrapped on such a universe (ala The Gentle Art of Levitation). Here you would no longer be forced into the [di]satisfaction provided by deriving mechanisms that come with a given compiler. Instead, you could write your own generic programs in libraries over the "builtin" universe of codes and live happily ever after.

This led me to think about making one such generic function be a transformation from one isomorphic type to another. You've likely heard of algebraic data types in functional programming. The "algebraic" part is inspired by the properties that arise when considering the types (unit), (bottom), (disjoint union), and × (cartesian product) as their familiar numeric brethren 1 (one), 0 (zero), + (addition), and * (multiplication). If you haven't seen this before, this Lab49 post explains it well to a non-expert audience.

The interesting bit is that at least in this finite universe (no type recursion / μ), two given types are isomorphic if and only if the evaluation/simplification of their numeric counterpart reduce to equal numbers. The effect that this has is that pairs of types such as (⊤ ⊎ ⊤) ⊎ ⊤ & ⊤ ⊎ (⊤ ⊎ ⊤), or ⊥ × ⊤ & are isomorphic (i.e. we can define mutually inverse functions that convert a value of one type to a value of the other type). In general this happens because both universes described are commutative semigroups; so you get isomorphisms that correspond with familiar numeric properties like the associativity of addition, one with addition acting as an identity, zero with multiplication acting as an annihilator, etc. These kinds of isomorphisms are well known and Robert Di Cosmo has even written a book called Isomorphisms of Types about them. For more information, you can also read about Tarski's high school algebra problem. Yet another (albeit this time model theoretic) way to think about it is that two types are isomorphic if and only if their two numerical versions are isomorphic as objects in the category of finite sets (this and the relation to Tarski's problem is covered at the beginning of Di Cosmo's book).

Denotational Semantics

Now that we know that the isomorphisms described exist, we would like to have a constructive method for converting between values of isomorphic types. Let us start by recapping the finite universe of types that we are working with. The convention that we will be using for type codes is prefixing them with a backtick, for example the code for unit is ``⊤while its interpretation is⊤` (no backtick present).

data Type : Set where
  `⊥ `⊤ : Type
  _`⊎_ _`×_ _`→_ : (S T : Type)  Type

El : Type  Set
El ` = 
El ` = 
El (S ` T) = El S  El T
El (S `× T) = El S × El T
El (S ` T) = El S  El T

Note that I have also added a (function type), which corresponds to ^ (exponentiation). Using this, another example of an isomorphism is three × three & two → three (where constants like two are just shorthand for ⊤ ⊎ ⊤, etc.) This is because three × three evaluates as 3 * 3 and two → three as 3^2, which both normalize to 9.

Not surprisingly, we can define a function to count the number of inhabitants of a type.

count : Type  
count ` = 0
count ` = 1
count (S ` T) = count S + count T
count (S `× T) = count S * count T
count (S ` T) = count T ^ count S

What we are really after is a static method for knowing when two given types are isomorphic, so we can write a total function that converts values between the types. The static "equality" will then act as a parameter to our coercion function whose "proof" we can use to restrict our definition to only the necessary isomorphic type cases.

A first attempt to define such a function might be as follows:

coerce : {S T : Type}  El S  count S  count T  El T

Or similarly using a more structurally defined equivalence relation:

coerce : {S T : Type}  El S  S  T  El T

While either of these examples would work, requiring an extra explicit proof parameter feels like a burden and is not in the spirit of correct-by-construction programming. When writing proofs / total functions in a language like Agda, you tend to get simpler definitions when implicitly enforcing equality constraints by reusing variables in a dependent type signature. Plus, we started out with such a beautiful denotational semantics, why ruin it with post-hoc reasoning? What we really want is a type signature like this:

coerce : {n : } {S T : Type n}  El S  El T

Here a single natural number n : ℕ is implicitly shared between two codes of a family of types indexed by the natural numbers. As a result a separate explicit proof need not be supplied. How do we write such a type? We merely encode our count function into our previous denotational semantics.

data Type :   Set where
  `⊥ : Type 0
  `⊤ : Type 1
  _`⊎_ : ∀ {m n} (S : Type m) (T : Type n) → Type (m + n)
  _`×_ : ∀ {m n} (S : Type m) (T : Type n) → Type (m * n)
  _`→_ : ∀ {m n} (S : Type m) (T : Type n) → Type (n ^ m)

El :  {n}  Type n  Set
El ` = 
El ` = 
El (S ` T) = El S  El T
El (S `× T) = El S × El T
El (S ` T) = El S  El T

Type Coercion

Now that we have a good looking type, we should begin thinking about how to provably cross the chasm between two isomorphic types. As mentioned earlier, isomorphism occurs when it exists between objects in the category of sets. We can use this as inspiration for our plan to convert values. Namely, we will have one function that converts values of Type n into their corresponding Fin n (the type of finite sets), and another function which injects a Fin n into an appropriately shaped Type n. It's worth noting that when writing these functions we get to reuse the technique of sharing our implicit n in the type signature without any other explicit proof that a Type and Fin are somehow related.

Another [un]intended side effect is that once such a bijection between types and finite sets has been established, we can reuse any (and there are many) functions previously defined for Fin! For example, equality of finite sets, enumeration of all possible values in a finite set, orderings between finite sets... essentially our familiar Eq, Enum, and Ordderiving mechanisms from Haskell but defined in user land and accompanied by proofs. This means by the end of our journey we will have for Type the deriving functions Iso, Eq, Enum, Ord and more (where more is whatever you are capable of defining)!

Technical Digression

As a minor technical detail, we will change notation from El (element of the universe) as our interpretation function to the more familiar semantics brackets ⟦_⟧. The real motivation behind this is to prevent the functional definition of El from expanding (in places we don't want it to, like when appealing to an inductive hypothesis via recursion) as we pattern match on its domain. This is accomplished by hiding our functional definition inside of a concrete data type with a single constructor. Also of note is mutually defining this new type, so that El may recurse with it (yet another method to make inductive steps of proofs go through more smoothly). Also please excuse my omission of , you can still make things work when it is included but I don't have the proof cases for it that appear later in the post.

El :  {n}  Type n  Set
data _ {n} (F : Type n) : Set

El ` = 
El ` = 
El (S ` T) =  S    T 
El (S `× T) =  S  ×  T 

data _ {n} F where
  [_] : El F F

Back To Regularly Scheduled Programming

  inject+ :  {m} n  Fin m  Fin (m + n)
  raise :  {m} n  Fin m  Fin (n + m)
  concat :  {m n}  Fin m  Fin n  Fin (m * n)

toFin :  {n} {F : Type n}   F   Fin n
toFin {F = `} [ () ]
toFin {F = `} [ tt ] = zero
toFin {F = S ` T} [ inj₁ a ] = inject+ _ (toFin a)
toFin {F = _`_ {m = m} S T} [ inj₂ b ] = raise m (toFin b)
toFin {F = S `× T} [ a , b ] = concat (toFin a) (toFin b)

The toFin function allows us to transform a value of a type into into an element of a finite set of the same cardinality. Explaining it and subsequent functions in detail is beyond the scope of this post, but you can get a feel for how it operates (and/or look here at the source code). The disjoint union case translates a value to the world of finite sets where we raise a particularly positioned finite set element to a bigger finite set but still in the same position. In the finite set world, the cartesian product case combines two finite sets positions into a single one corresponding to their position in the multiplication of both set cardinalities.

  case :  {m} {n}  Fin (m + n)  Fin m  Fin n
  split :  {m} {n}  Fin (m * n)  Fin m × Fin n

inject :  {n} (F : Type n)  Fin n   F 
inject ` ()
inject ` i = [ tt ]
inject (S ` T) i with case i
... | inj₁ j = [ inj₁ (inject S j) ]
... | inj₂ k = [ inj₂ (inject T k) ]
inject (S `× T) i with split i
... | j , k = [ (inject S j , inject T k) ]

Now going in the other direction, if we have a finite set element and a code for the type/shape we would like it to become, we can inject the element into the expected value. At this point I should mention that the traversal order of our tree-structured types that the isomorphic toFin and inject follow is arbitrary, and there are in fact several other isomorphisms we could choose to go through. The special thing about this isomorphism, is that it corresponds nicely with the pattern matching structure of other definitions (e.g. +, *, etc), so we get prettier proofs. The case and split functions are analogous to the previously seen inject+/raise and concat, merely in the other direction.

lift :  {m n} {S T : Type m} {U V : Type n} 
  ( S    U )   T    V 
lift {m} {n} {S} {T} {U} {V} f =
  inject V  toFin  f  inject S  toFin

coerce :  {n} {S T : Type n}   S    T 
coerce {S = S} s = lift (id {A =  S }) s

The magnificent moment has arrived, our desired coerce function! Coercion is in fact a special case of a more general definition that lifts functions with a different domain and codomain to functions defined on different types but whose cardinalities respectively match the original function. In particular, the special case is the lifting of the identity function id. lift uses our previously defined functions to toFin out of old types and inject into the desired new types.


Now that we have a coercion function, it remains to be shown that its components toFin and inject are in fact mutually inverse. Below we will give the proof of one direction of the bijection law we wish to see hold.

  case-raise :  {n} m  (i : Fin n)  case {m = m} (raise m i)  inj₂ i
  case-inject :  {m} n  (i : Fin m)  case (inject+ n i)  inj₁ i
  split-concat :  {m} {n}  (i : Fin m) (j : Fin n)  split (concat i j)  (i , j)

bijection₁ :  {n} {S : Type n} (s :  S )  inject S (toFin s)  s
bijection₁ {S = `} [ () ]
bijection₁ {S = `} [ tt ] = refl
bijection₁ {S = _`_ {n = n} S T} [ inj₁ a ]
  with case-inject n (toFin a) | bijection₁ a
... | p | ih rewrite p | ih = refl
bijection₁ {S = _`_ {m = m} S T} [ inj₂ b ]
  with case-raise m (toFin b) | bijection₁ b
... | p | ih rewrite p | ih = refl
bijection₁ {S = S `× T} [ (a , b) ]
  with split-concat (toFin a) (toFin b) | bijection₁ a | bijection₁ b
... | p | ih₁ | ih₂ rewrite p | ih₁ | ih₂ = refl

Thanks to our lemmas and careful attention to where we pattern match across several definitions, the bijection₁ proof is reasonably tame. The proofs of the lemmas are also inductive and quite tidy.


We started this post with alluding to the connection to deriving generic functions as in Haskell, and now we are here at last. The coerce function that we already have corresponds to what you might call something like deriving Iso in a language limited to finite types.

__ :  {n} {F : Type n}  Decidable {A =  F } __
__ {F = F} x y  with toFin x f toFin y
... | no p = no (p  cong toFin)
... | yes p with bijection₁ x | bijection₁ y | cong (inject F) p
... | a | b | c rewrite a | b = yes c

enum :  {n} (F : Type n)  Vec  F  n
enum = tabulate  inject

and enum correspond to deriving Eq and Enum. An equivalent for deriving Ord via making use of the function compare would be a bit more involved because it return an Ordering type defined on Fin's, and I haven't gotten around to attempting it yet. However, do notice that our gives us a proof of equality (rather than a coincidental boolean), enum is assured to give us a vector of values whose length matches the number of inhabitants, and Ord would give us back a proof of why something is less, equal, or greater (just like the already defined Fin version in the Agda standard library).

Dependent Types

Viewing type isomorphisms in the setting above can be an educational way to see the connection to what is meant by "algebraic data types". However, when extended to dependent types I dare say it may be useful. Since dependent types can represent arbitrary constructive logical propositions (as per the Curry-Howard Isomorphism), a function like coerce amounts to a procedure to convert a proof of one logical proposition to a proof of another isomorphic logical proposition. Since (at least in the finite system presented here) type isomorphism gets calculated along with terms at compile time, one cool application would be making a type system or tactic system consider values of isomorphic types in the context when searching for proof inhabitance. Further, under the Curry-Howard lens one proof is as good as another (proof irrelevance), so which isomorphism we happen to use doesn't matter as much (whereas with non-dependent types we care much more about what values look like when passing through a given isomorphism bridge).

Dependent pairs (Σ) and dependent functions (Π) may be understood as "big sum" and "big product" from algebra. When you multiply two number like 2 * 3 you can think of it as a fold of + (sum) over a homogenous list of two's of length three, i.e. sum (2 ∷ 2 ∷ 2 ∷ []) ≡ 2 + 2 + 2. Similarly, exponentiation like 2 ^ 3 can be interpreted as iterated multiplication (rather than addition), i.e. product (2 ∷ 2 ∷ 2 ∷ []) ≡ 2 * 2 * 2. Dependent types abstract out a function that may be applied to each element of a heterogeneous list of values. For example, you may remember informal expressions in math classes like Σ i*i as i goes from 0 to 3. Here the function λ i → i * i is the parameter and is being sum'd across the list 0, 1, 2, 3, resulting in 0 + 1 + 4 + 9. For more of an intro to these concepts, @copumpkin has written a nice stackoverflow answer on the topic.

Σ :  {n} {A : Set}  Vec A n  (A  )  
Σ [] f = zero
Σ (x  xs) f = f x + Σ xs f

Π :  {n} {A : Set}  Vec A n  (A  )  
Π [] f = zero
Π (x  xs) f = f x * Π xs f

data Type : Set
El : Type  Set

data Type where
  `⊥ `⊤ : Type
  _`⊎_ _`×_ _`→_ : (S T : Type)  Type
  `Σ `Π : (S : Type)(T : El S  Type)  Type

El ` = 
El ` = 
El (S ` T) = El S  El T
El (S `× T) = El S × El T 
El (S ` T) = El S  El T 
El (`Σ S T) = Σ (El S) λ s  El (T s)
El (`Π S T) = (s : El S)  El (T s)

count : Type  
postulate enum : (R : Type)  Vec (El R) (count R)

count ` = 0
count ` = 1
count (S ` T) = count S + count T
count (S `× T) = count S * count T
count (S ` T) = count T ^ count S
count (`Σ S T) = Σ (enum S) (λ s  count (T s))
count (`Π S T) = Π (enum S) (λ s  count (T s))

First off, let me add the disclaimer that I have only defined enum for the above in the source code for Σ (I've defined the case for in a separate universe, and have not defined it yet for Π). Secondly, as I was working on this development I reverted to defining count explicitly rather than implicitly in the type family. There are less mutually defined definitions that way (such as enum, and toFin in the universe), but I hope that converting everything back to the type family form would still work in the end.

The reason why we need the enum function is because the dependent constructor argument (T : El S → Type) sits behind a λ abstraction barrier. We cannot simply "count T", as the T function may return a type of different cardinality for every possible S it may analyze. While the Σ example above from mathematics used a uniform/parametric function λ i → i * i, it could have in fact analyzed every i and returned a different answer for each. In fact as I define the (domain restricted) square function in our formal language below a non-uniform definition is demonstrated.

`square : El `four  Type
`square (inj₁ tt) = ` `× `
`square (inj₂ (inj₁ tt)) = ` `× `
`square (inj₂ (inj₂ (inj₁ tt))) = `two `× `two
`square (inj₂ (inj₂ (inj₂ tt))) = `three `× `three

`sum-of-squares : Type
`sum-of-squares = `Σ `four `square

Note the difference between the dependent function square, and one concrete type instantiation of it sum-of-squares. In this formalization all dependent types are defined in the computational/functional form, rather than the more familiar data-typical form (i.e. using the keyword data in a language like Agda). Nevertheless, logical propositions can be represented this way just as well. Consider for example the predicate even for numbers.

`even : El `four  Type
`even (inj₁ tt) = `
`even (inj₂ (inj₁ tt)) = `
`even (inj₂ (inj₂ (inj₁ tt))) = `
`even (inj₂ (inj₂ (inj₂ tt))) = `

`even : Type
`even = `Σ `four `even

Here each case is to be understood to mean the number of inhabitants for that particular value. In other words "zero" has one proof of even, "one" has none, "two" has one, and "three" has none. When looking at dependent types from this logical angle, the instantiation of even under Σ represents the logical proposition that there exists an even number in the domain 0-3. Further, the count function would tell us there are in fact two such proofs (1 + 0 + 1 + 0). If we counted the inhabitants of the proposition Π four even we would get 0, because multiplying by a zero annihilates the whole term. This makes perfect sense, as all numbers are not even.

A cute use of coerce in this setting would be to get a value of ∃odd from a ∃even, as both propositions have two inhabitants. In a more interesting universe not limited to finite types, an isomorphism between all odd and even proofs would exist and be much more interesting.

Inductive Definitions

Adding μ as defined in Conor's Reddit comment at the beginning of the article to this universe leads to positivity issues. However, W-types (an alternative way to get recursive types as seen in Per Martin-Löf's Type Theory) fit in quite neatly.

data W (S : Set) (T : S  Set) : Set where
  _,_ : (s : S)  (T s  W S T)  W S T

data Type : Set
El : Type  Set

data Type where
  `⊥ `⊤ : Type
  _`⊎_ _`×_ _`→_ : (S T : Type)  Type
  `Σ `Π `W : (S : Type)(T : El S  Type)  Type

El ` = 
El ` = 
El (S ` T) = El S  El T
El (S `× T) = El S × El T
El (S ` T) = El S  El T
El (`Σ S T) = Σ (El S) λ s  El (T s)
El (`Π S T) = (s : El S)  El (T s)
El (`W S T) = W (El S) λ s  El (T s)

At this point our (non-indexed) universe looks very much like what appears in Thorsten Altenkirch's and Conor McBride's OTT paper (indeed a brief scan of this paper inspired some this work as well). Trying to tackle the problem of isomorphisms in a universe of infinitely inhabited types is beyond the scope of this post (I don't know if a total coerce for every iso exists, but even just getting some of these would be useful). However, one could limit W-types to some finite bound such as all inhabitants up to some parameterized depth. The advantage would be the ability to use inductive definitions for types and propositions (e.g. or even), rather than the more verbose form of exhaustively specifying every case. However, I have not yet experimented very much in this area.

Future Work

The obvious next steps are to explore the more interesting world of infinitely inhabited types. I've started trying to expand the semiring type index to formally expressed polynomials in any number of variables List (List ℕ) (where list positions correspond to coefficients). It obviously does not capture all isomorphisms. For example (using just polynomials in one variable List ℕ), μX. ⊤ ⊎ X & μX. ⊤ ⊎ ⊤ ⊎ X become 1 ∷ 1 ∷ [] & 2 ∷ 1 ∷ [] respectively. However, isomorphisms for types due to basic properties such as associativity, symmetry, etc remain, e.g. μX. ⊤ ⊎ X & μX. X ⊎ ⊤ both become 1 ∷ 1 ∷ []... so it may be worth exploring a bit nonetheless.

After doing a little bit of surveying I've found some more serious attempts at cracking the recursive type isomorphism problem listed below:


I hope to have at least whet your appetite to the fun that can be had with constructively definable isomorphisms between types. Even though we have only dealt with a finite universe, when Σ, Π, and something like FinW are added I think it becomes a fairly interesting universe to play in. The denotational semantics as a family of types indexed by the naturals also seems like a simple and modular way to discover, and simply prove things about, finite isomorphic types. I think that this implicit style relying on canonicity is more elegant than the explicit approach of a separate proof object (and at the very least a more pragmatic way to get simpler proofs).

This was a post in a new experiment in collaborative formal methods / FP blogging. You can read more about it at I hope for my own sanity that my future posts are not this long, so please do not be intimated away from writing much smaller and free spirited entries.