2016. december 23., péntek

A bit of lambda calculus

Lately I have been messing around with functional programming. I find it extremely pure and scalable.
But I wanted to get back to the core of it and suddenly I found myself in the deep forests of lambda calculus. This article is going to cover what I learned the past few weeks. Let's jump in!


Lamba syntax only has
  • variables: x
  • lambda abstractions: λx.x
  • applications: (t s)
And that's it. Boom.
You have everything at this point. You have a Turing-complete language.
And that's (the simplicity) one of the most remarkable about this system.
Unlike other languages it has one primitive element which is the function. No Integers, Numbers, Strings, Characters, Booleans, etc.. Only functions.
But with this simple concept you are able to create any real-world general-purpose programs. (That's Turing-completeness in a nutshell in a very informal way.)
At this point you are going to ask: how can I implement primitive types such as booleans or numbers with functions? - And that's a very good question.

Church encoding

Don't be afraid of this term, it won't hurt.
Church encoding only means to be able to represent data and operators in the lambda calculus.
From another perspective: the guy (Alonzo Church, who had a major impact on modern logic and computation technology) who invented the lambda calculus was not a lunatic when he decided to create the core rules of the language but instead he wanted to create a general language for an investigation where he wanted to determine the foundations of mathematics. So he knew this language should support e.g. addition on two numbers. And - come closer, let me whisper something - it can.
To understand this we have to go a bit abstract.

You are thinking right now: "how could we possibly get the primitive 1 out of only function expressions?". The answer is: we won't.
We are going to go abstract. We are going to call a certain expression 1.
 And with this abstraction we can create a rule set where e.g. addition is going to make sense, so e.g. + 1 = 2. Elementary school flashback, isn't it?
But first, let's look at the most basic primitive element of any programming language: The Booleans. (As I wrote it down it feels like an 80's TV show.)
Think about booleans as a choice.
Let's create a higher-order function where if something is true it is going to return the "first" argument of the function and it returns the second if it's false.
true := (λx.(λy x))
false := (λx.(λy y))
It makes more sense if we define the basic logical operators as well:
and := (λp.(λq. p q) p)
or := (λp.(λq. p p) q)
Let's try a simple operation: (and true false):
(λp.(λq. p q) p) (λx.(λy x)) (λx.(λy y)) := true false true := (λx.(λy x)) false true := false := (λx.(λy y))
BOOM. true AND false = false. Magic.
What is really important here is the result is a function expression as well.

OK. Now we can do some simple logic operations. How about numbers? Addition? Multiplication? ..?
We can do that too! But remember, we only have functions as building blocks, and with these we are going to mimic numbers with functions (or function compositions).
Let's pretend that character "1" is not a number but just a character. Which is the case by the way in lambda calculus since we don't have any other primitive data types than functions.
With this let's define numbers as functions.
The key concept will be the following: if a function is going to compose that function n-times we are going to look at that function as a representation of the number n.
E.g.: f(f(f(x))) /or λf. λx.  f f f x / means it's the number 3. And λf. λx. x means it's the number 0.
0 := (λf. λx. x)
1 := (λf. λx. f x)
2 := (λf. λx. f f x)
3 := (λf. λx. f f f x)
...
n := (λf. λx. f n x)

With this abstraction now we can think about numbers as function expressions.
As we discussed in the previous example at the logical operations let's create  a simple operation on numbers: increment. This is the good ol' fashioned i++; statement. Let's call it succ (as successor).
succ := (λn. λf. λx. f (n f x))
Let's succ 0 for the sake of simplicity:
succ 0 := (λn. λf. λx. f (n f x))(λf. λx. x)
Basically what this means is call f on a function w-hich already called n-times f. f n+1. Easy.
succ 0 := (λn. λf. λx. f (n f x)) (λf. λx. x) = (λf. λx. f ( (λf_. λx_. x_) f x ) ) (λf. λx. f ( (λf_. f_) x ) ) = (λf. λx. f x)
And the result is 1! That's it!
You can imagine now and belive me there is a way to "simulate" all the mathematical operations such as addition, multiplication, exponentiation, etc.. If you're interested, you can find out more here.

This "thinking about natural numbers as they were functions" concept is called Church numerals. I skipped this term on purpose: I didn't want to scare you with formal mathematical words. But that's it, now you know what Church encoding and Church numerals are. Congratulations!

Fun fact the system above only works on natural numbers since if we would go under 0 it would just give us 0. But obviously we can create a system where minus numbers are also included in this game, but I'm not going to cover that topic in this very article. :)

Here is a very good lambda calculator if you would like to play around with lambda expressions: http://www.cburch.com/lambda/

In summary: I find it extremely interesting and fascinating that we can think about data, operations and almost anything else as composition and representation of functions. Nothing else is needed, just plain, simple functions.

Happy Functional Holidays!