Type Inference

Java and OCaml are statically typed languages, meaning every binding has a type that is determined at compile time—that is, before any part of the program is executed. The type-checker is a compile-time procedure that either accepts or rejects a program. By contrast, JavaScript and Ruby are dynamically-typed languages; the type of a binding is not determined ahead of time. Computations like binding 42 to x and then treating x as a string therefore either result in run-time errors, or run-time conversion between types.

Unlike Java, OCaml is implicitly typed, meaning programmers rarely need to write down the types of bindings. This is often convenient, especially with higher-order functions. (Although some people disagree as to whether it makes code easier or harder to read). But implicit typing in no way changes the fact that OCaml is statically typed. Rather, the type-checker has to be more sophisticated because it must infer what the type annotations "would have been" had the programmers written all of them. In principle, type inference and type checking could be separate procedures (the inferencer could figure out the types then the checker could determine whether the program is well-typed), but in practice they are often merged into a single procedure called type reconstruction.

OCaml type reconstruction

OCaml was rather cleverly designed so that type reconstruction is a straightforward algorithm. At a very high level, that algorithm works as follows:

  • Determine the types of definitions in order, using the types of earlier definitions to infer the types of later ones. (Which is one reason you may not use a name before it is bound in an OCaml program.)

  • For each let definition, analyze the definition to determine constraints about its type. For example, if the inferencer sees x + 1, it concludes that x must have type int. It gathers similar constraints for function applications, pattern matches, etc. Think of these constraints as a system of equations like you might have in algebra.

  • Use that system of equations to solve for the type of the name begin defined.

The OCaml type reconstruction algorithm attempts to never reject a program that could type check, if the programmer had written down types. It also attempts never to accept a program that cannot possibly type check. Some more obscure parts of the language can sometimes make type annotations either necessary or at least helpful (see Real World OCaml chapter 22, "Type inference", for examples). But for most code you write, type annotations really are completely optional.

Since it would be verbose to keep writing "the type reconstruction algorithm used by OCaml and other functional languages," we'll call the algorithm HM. That name is used throughout the programming languages literature, because the algorithm was independently invented by Roger Hindley and Robin Milner. In the next few sections, we'll see how HM works.

The history of HM

HM has been rediscovered many times by many people. Curry used it informally in the 1950's (perhaps even the 1930's). He wrote it up formally in 1967 (published 1969). Hindley discovered it independently in 1969; Morris in 1968; and Milner in 1978. In the realm of logic, similar ideas go back perhaps as far as Tarski in the 1920's. Commenting on this history, Hindley wrote,

There must be a moral to this story of continual re-discovery; perhaps someone along the line should have learned to read. Or someone else learn to write.

Efficiency of HM

Although we haven't seen the HM algorithm yet, you probably won't be surprised to learn that it's usually very efficient—you've probably never had to wait for the toplevel to print the inferred types of your programs. In practice, it runs in approximately linear time. But in theory, there are some very strange programs that can cause its running-time to blow up. (Technically, it's exponential time.) For fun, try typing the following code in utop:

# let b = true;;
# let f0 = fun x -> x + 1;;
# let f = fun x -> if b then f0 else fun y -> x y;;
# let f = fun x -> if b then f else fun y -> x y;;
# let f = fun x -> if b then f else fun y -> x y;;
(* keep repeating that last line *)

You'll see the types get longer and longer, and eventually (around 20 repetitions or so) type inference will cause a significant delay.

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