Union types

12 06 2011

In his recent blog post Miles Sabin came up with an ingenious way of expressing union types in Scala. A union type is the union of some types: its values are the union of the values of each of the individual types.

In a nutshell he first defines the negation of types as

type ¬[A] = A => Nothing

and then the union of two types via De Morgan’s law

type ∨[T, U] = ¬[¬[T] with ¬[U]]

With the following auxiliary constructs

type ¬¬[A] = ¬[¬[A]]
type |∨|[T, U] = { type λ[X] = ¬¬[X] <:< (T ∨ U) }

union types can be used in a very intuitive way

def size[T: (Int |∨| String)#λ](t: T) = t match {
    case i: Int => i
    case s: String => s.length

scala> size(3)
res0: Int = 3

scala> size("three")
res1: Int = 5

scala> size(4.2)
:13: error: Cannot prove that ((Double) => Nothing) => Nothing >: Nothing with (java.lang.String) => Nothing) => Nothing.

… and beyond

With type negation and disjunction from above, it becomes possible to express all types whose set of values can be expressed by a term in propositional calculus. But can we do better? That is, is it possible to express types which don’t have a corresponding term in propositional calculus?

Generalizing the type constructor ∨[T, U] to some arbitrary acceptor

type Acceptor[T, U] = { type λ[X] = ... }

it becomes apparent, that all types for which there is a corresponding type level acceptor function are expressible. Since type level calculations in Scala are Turing complete, it should be possible to find an acceptor for any recursive function. This means that – in theory at least – Scala’s type system is powerful enough to express any type whose set of values is recursive.