Posted on March 14, 2021
Tags: Haskell

Check out this type:

newtype a -&> b = Hyp { invoke :: (b -&> a) -> b } 

This a hyperfunction (Launchbury, Krstic, and Sauerwein 2013; 2000; 2000), and I think it’s one of the weirdest and most interesting newtypes you can write in Haskell.

The first thing to notice is that the recursion pattern is weird. For a type to refer to itself recursively on the left of a function arrow is pretty unusual, but on top of that the recursion is non-regular. That means that the recursive reference has different type parameters to its parent: a -&> b is on the left-hand-side of the equals sign, but on the right we refer to b -&> a.

Being weird is reason enough to write about them, but what’s really shocking about hyperfunctions is that they’re useful. Once I saw the definition I realised that a bunch of optimisation code I had written (to fuse away zips in particular) was actually using hyperfunctions (Ghani et al. 2005). After that, I saw them all over the place: in coroutine implementations, queues, breadth-first traversals, etc.

Anyways, since coming across hyperfunctions a few months ago I thought I’d do a writeup on them. I’m kind of surprised they’re not more well-known, to be honest: they’re like a slightly more enigmatic Cont monad, with a far cooler name. Let’s get into it!

What Are Hyperfunctions?

The newtype noise kind of hides what’s going on with hyperfunctions: expanding the definition out might make things slightly clearer.

type a -&> b = (b -&> a) -> b
             = ((a -&> b) -> a) -> b
             = (((b -&> a) -> b) -> a) -> b
             = ((((... -> b) -> a) -> b) -> a) -> b

So a value of type a -&> b is kind of an infinitely left-nested function type. One thing worth noticing is that all the as are in negative positions and all the bs in positive. This negative and positive business basically refers to the position of arguments in relation to a function arrow: to the left are negatives, and to the right are positives, but two negatives cancel out.

((((... -> b) -> a) -> b) -> a) -> b
           +     -     +     -     +

All the things in negative positions are kind of like the things a function “consumes”, and positive positions are the things “produced”. It’s worth fiddling around with very nested function types to get a feel for this notion. For hyperfunctions, though, it’s enough to know that a -&> b does indeed (kind of) take in a bunch of as, and it kind of produces bs.

By the way, one of the ways to get to grips with polarity in this sense is to play around with the Cont monad, codensity monad, or selection monad (Hedges 2015). If you do, you may notice one of the interesting parallels about hyperfunctions: the type a -&> a is in fact the fixpoint of the continuation monad (Fix (Cont a)). Suspicious!

Hyperfunctions Are Everywhere

Before diving further into the properties of the type itself, I’d like to give some examples of how it can show up in pretty standard optimisation code.


Let’s say you wanted to write zip with foldr (I have already described this particular algorithm in a previous post). Not foldr on the left argument, mind you, but foldr on both. If you proceed mechanically, replacing every recursive function with foldr, you can actually arrive at a definition:

zip :: [a] -> [b] -> [(a,b)]
zip xs ys = foldr xf xb xs (foldr yf yb ys)
    xf x xk yk = yk x xk
    xb _ = []
    yf y yk x xk = (x,y) : xk yk
    yb _ _ = []

In an untyped language, or a language with recursive types, such a definition would be totally fine. In Haskell, though, the compiler will complain with the following:

• Occurs check: cannot construct the infinite type:
    t0 ~ a -> (t0 -> [(a, b)]) -> [(a, b)]

Seasoned Haskellers will know, though, that this is not a type error: no, this is a type recipe. The compiler is telling you what parameters it wants you to stick in the newtype:

newtype Zip a b = 
  Zip { runZip :: a -> (Zip a b -> [(a,b)]) -> [(a,b)] }

zip :: forall a b. [a] -> [b] -> [(a,b)]
zip xs ys = xz yz
    xz :: Zip a b -> [(a,b)]
    xz = foldr f b xs
        f x xk yk = runZip yk x xk
        b _ = []
    yz :: Zip a b
    yz = foldr f b ys
        f y yk = Zip (\x xk -> (x,y) : xk yk)
        b = Zip (\_ _ -> [])

And here we see the elusive hyperfunction: hidden behind a slight change of parameter order, Zip a b is in fact the same as [(a,b)] -&> (a -> [(a,b)]).

zip :: forall a b. [a] -> [b] -> [(a,b)]
zip xs ys = invoke xz yz
    xz :: (a -> [(a,b)]) -&> [(a,b)]
    xz = foldr f b xs
        f x xk = Hyp (\yk -> invoke yk xk x)
        b = Hyp (\_ -> [])
    yz :: [(a,b)] -&> (a -> [(a,b)]) 
    yz = foldr f b ys
        f y yk = Hyp (\xk x -> (x,y) : invoke xk yk)
        b = Hyp (\_ _ -> [])


In another previous post I derived the following function to do a breadth-first traversal of a tree:

data Tree a = a :& [Tree a]

newtype Q a = Q { q :: (Q a -> [a]) -> [a] }

bfe :: Tree a -> [a]
bfe t = q (f t b) e
    f :: Tree a -> Q a -> Q a
    f (x :& xs) fw = Q (\bw -> x : q fw (bw . flip (foldr f) xs))
    b :: Q a
    b = Q (\k -> k b)
    e :: Q a -> [a]
    e (Q q) = q e

That Q type there is another hyperfunction.

bfe :: Tree a -> [a]
bfe t = invoke (f t e) e
    f :: Tree a -> ([a] -&> [a]) -> ([a] -&> [a])
    f (x :& xs) fw = Hyp (\bw -> x : invoke fw (Hyp (invoke bw . flip (foldr f) xs)))
    e :: [a] -&> [a]
    e = Hyp (\k -> invoke k e)

One of the problems I had with the above function was that it didn’t terminate: it could enumerate all the elements of the tree but it didn’t know when to stop. A similar program (Allison 2006; described and translated to Haskell in Smith 2009) manages to solve the problem with a counter. Will it shock you to find out this solution can also be encoded with a hyperfunction?

bfe t = invoke (f t e) e 1
    f :: Tree a -> (Int -> [a]) -&> (Int -> [a]) 
                -> (Int -> [a]) -&> (Int -> [a])
    f (x :& xs) fw =
      Hyp (\bw n -> x :
            invoke fw
              (Hyp (invoke bw . flip (foldr f) xs)) (n+1))

    e :: (Int -> [a]) -&> (Int -> [a])
    e = Hyp b
    b x 0 = []
    b x n = invoke x (Hyp b) (n-1)

(my version here is actually a good bit different from the one in Smith 2009, but the basic idea is the same)


Hyperfunctions seem to me to be quite deeply related to coroutines. At the very least several of the types involved in coroutine implementations are actual hyperfunctions. The ProdPar and ConsPar types from Pieters and Schrijvers (2019) are good examples:

newtype ProdPar a b = ProdPar (ConsPar a b -> b) 
newtype ConsPar a b = ConsPar (a -> ProdPar a b -> b)

ProdPar a b is isomorphic to (a -> b) -&> b, and ConsPar a b to b -&> (a -> b), as witnessed by the following functions:

Conversion functions between ProdPar, ConsPar and hyperfunctions

fromP :: ProdPar a b -> (a -> b) -&> b
fromP (ProdPar x) = Hyp (x . toC)

toC ::  b -&> (a -> b) -> ConsPar a b
toC (Hyp h) = ConsPar (\x p -> h (fromP p) x)

toP :: (a -> b) -&> b -> ProdPar a b
toP (Hyp x) = ProdPar (x . fromC)

fromC :: ConsPar a b -> b -&> (a -> b)
fromC (ConsPar p) = Hyp (\h x -> p x (toP h))

In fact this reveals a little about what was happening in the zip function: we convert the left-hand list to a ProdPar (producer), and the right-hand to a consumer, and apply them to each other.

Hyperfunctions Are Weird

Aside from just being kind of weird intuitively, hyperfunctions are weird in theory. Set-theoretically, for instance, you cannot form the set of a -&> b: if you tried, you’d run into those pesky size restrictions which stop us from making things like “the set of all sets”. Haskell types, however, are not sets, precisely because we can define things like a -&> b.

For slightly different reasons to the set theory restrictions, we can’t define the type of hyperfunctions in Agda. The following will get an error:

record __ (A : Type a) (B : Type b) : Type (a ℓ⊔ b) where
  inductive; constructor hyp
  field invoke : (B ↬ A)  B

And for good reason! Agda doesn’t allow recursive types where the recursive call is in a negative position. If we turn off the positivity checker, we can write Curry’s paradox (example proof taken from here):

yes? : ⊥ ↬ ⊥
yes? .invoke h = h .invoke h

no! : (⊥ ↬ ⊥) 
no! h = h .invoke h

boom :
boom = no! yes?

Note that this isn’t an issue with the termination checker: the above example passes all the normal termination conditions without issue (yes, even if is marked as coinductive). It’s directly because the type itself is not positive.

Interestingly, there is a slightly different, and nearly equivalent, definition of hyperfunctions which doesn’t allow us to write the above proof:

record __ (A : Type a) (B : Type b) : Type (a ℓ⊔ b) where
  inductive; constructor hyp
  field invoke : ((A ↬ B)  A)  B

This is basically a slightly expanded out version of the hyperfunction type, and importantly it’s positive. Not strictly positive however, since the recursive call does occur to the left of a function arrow: it’s just positive, in that it’s to the left of an even number of function arrows.

I found in a blog post by Sjöberg (2015) some interesting discussion regarding the question of this extra strictness: in Coq, allowing certain positive but not strictly positive types does indeed introduce an inconsistency (Coquand and Paulin 1990). However this inconsistency relies on an impredicative universe, which Agda doesn’t have. As far as I understand it, it would likely be safe to allow types like above in Agda (Coquand 2013), although I’m not certain that with all of Agda’s newer features that’s still the case.

The connection between non-strictly-positive types and breadth-first traversals has been noticed before: Berger, Matthes, and Setzer (2019) make the argument for their inclusion in Agda and Coq using a breadth-first traversal algorithm by Hofmann (1993), which uses the following type:

data Rou
  = Over
  | Next ((Rou -> [Int]) -> [Int])

Now this type isn’t a hyperfunction (but it’s close); we’ll see soon what kind of thing it is.

Hyperfunctions Are a Category

So we’ve seen that hyperfunctions show up kind of incidentally through certain optimisations, and we’ve seen that they occupy a strange space in terms of their theoretical interpretation: we haven’t yet seen much about the type itself in isolation. Luckily Ed Kmett has already written the hyperfunctions package (2015), where a laundry list of instances are provided, which can tell us a little more about what hyperfunctions can actually do on their own.

The Category instance gives us the following:

instance Category (-&>) where
  id = Hyp (\k -> invoke k id)
  f . g = Hyp (\k -> invoke f (g . k))

We’ve actually seen the identity function a few times: we used it as the base case for recursion in the breadth-first traversal algorithms.

Composition we actually have used as well but it’s more obscured. An analogy to help clear things up is to think of hyperfunctions as a kind of stack. id is the empty stack, and we can use the following function to push items onto the stack:

push :: (a -> b) -> a -&> b -> a -&> b
push f q = Hyp (\k -> f (invoke k q))

Understood in this sense, composition acts like a zipping operation on stacks, since we have the following law:

push f p . push g q ≡ push (f . g) (p . q)

While we can’t really pop elements off the top of the stack directly, we can get close with invoke, since it satisfies the following law:

invoke (push f p) q ≡ f (invoke q p)

Along with the id implementation we have, this will let us run a hyperfunction, basically folding over the contents of the stack:

run :: a -&> a -> a
run f = invoke f id

This analogy helps us understand how the breadth-first traversals worked: the hyperfunctions are kind of like stacks with 𝒪(1)\mathcal{O}(1) push and zip, which is precisely what you need for an efficient breadth-first traversal.

bfe :: Tree a -> [a]
bfe = run . f
    f (x :& xs) = push (x:) (zips (map f xs))
    zips = foldr (.) id

Finally, hyperfunctions are of course monads:

instance Monad ((-&>) a) where
  m >>= f = Hyp (\k -> invoke (f (invoke m (Hyp (invoke k . (>>=f))))) k)

I won’t pretend to understand what’s going on here, but it looks a little like a nested reader monad. Perhaps there’s some intuition to be gained from noticing that a -&> a ~ Fix (Cont a).

Hyper Arrows Are…?

As I said in the introduction I’m kind of surprised there’s not more research out there on hyperfunctions. Aside from the excellent papers by Launchbury, Krstic, and Sauerwein (2013) there’s just not much out there. Maybe it’s that there’s not that much theoretical depth to them, but all the same there are some clear questions worth looking into.

For example: is there a hyperfunction monad transformer? Or, failing that, can you thread a monad through the type at any point, and do you get anything interesting out?

I have made a little headway on this question, while fiddling with one of the bfe definitions above. Basically I wanted to remove the Int counter for the terminating bfe, and I wanted to use a Maybe somewhere instead. I ended up generalising from Maybe to any m, yielding the following type:

newtype HypM m a b = HypM { invokeM :: m ((HypM m a b -> a) -> b) }

This does the job for the breadth-first traversal:

bfe t = r (f t e)
    f :: Tree a -> HypM Maybe [a] [a] -> HypM Maybe [a] [a]
    f (x :& xs) fw = HypM (Just (\bw -> x : fromMaybe (\k -> k e) (invokeM fw) (bw . flip (foldr f) xs)))

    e :: HypM Maybe [a] [a]
    e = HypM Nothing
    r :: HypM Maybe [a] [a] -> [a]
    r = maybe [] (\k -> k r) . invokeM

(In fact, when m is specialised to Maybe we have the same type as Rou)

This type has a very practical use, as it happens, which is related to the church-encoded list monad transformer:

newtype ListT m a = ListT { runListT :: forall b. (a -> m b -> m b) -> m b -> m b }

Just like -&> allowed us to write zip on folds (i.e. using foldr), HypM will allow us to write zipM on ListT:

zipM :: Monad m => ListT m a -> ListT m b -> ListT m (a,b)
zipM xs ys = ListT (\c n ->
    xf x xk = pure (\yk -> yk (HypM xk) x)
    xb = pure (\_ -> n)

    yf y yk = pure (\xk x -> c (x, y) (join (invokeM xk <*> yk)))
    yb = pure (\_ _ -> n)
  in join (runListT xs xf xb <*> runListT ys yf yb))

I actually think this function could be used to seriously improve the running time of several of the functions on LogicT: my reading of them suggests that interleave is 𝒪(n2)\mathcal{O}(n^2) (or worse), but the zip above could be trivially repurposed to give a 𝒪(n)\mathcal{O}(n) interleave. This would also have knock-on effects on, for instance, >>- and so on.

Another question is regarding the arrows of the hyperfunction. We’ve seen that a hyperfunction kind of adds “stacking” to functions, can it do the same for other arrows? Basically, does the following type do anything useful?

newtype HypP p a b = HypP { invokeP :: p (HypP p b a) b }

Along a similar vein, many of the breadth-first enumeration algorithms seem to use “hyperfunctions over the endomorphism monoid”. Basically, they all produce hyperfunctions of the type [a] -&> [a], and use them quite similarly to how we would use difference lists. But we know that there are Cayley transforms in other monoidal categories, for instance in the applicative monoidal category: can we construct the “hyperfunction” version of those?


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