Review: Lightweight Semiformal Time Complexity Analysis for Purely Functional Data Structures

What a mouthful of a title! LWTCAfPFDS is our paper for the week, written by Nils Anders Danielsson. At a high level, the idea is to introduce a graded monad which counts computation steps, whose bind adds those steps together. By constructing our program in this monad, we can use the type-system to track its runtime asymptotics.

Core DefinitionsπŸ”—

We might as well dive in. Since all of this complexity analysis stuff shouldn’t change anything at runtime, we really only need to stick the analysis in the types, and can erase it all at runtime.

The paper thus presents its main tools in an abstract block, which is a new Agda feature for me. And wow, does Agda ever feel like it’s Haskell but from the future. An abstract block lets us give some definitions, which inside the abstract block can be normalized. But outside the block, they are opaque symbols that are just what they are. This is a delightful contrast to Haskell, where we need to play a game of making a new module, and carefully not exporting things in order to get the same behavior. And even then, in Haskell, we can’t give opaque type synonyms or anything like that.

Anyway, the main type in the paper is Thunk, which tracks how many computation steps are necessary to produce an eventual value:

  Thunk : β„• β†’ Set β†’ Set
  Thunk n a = a

Because none of this exists at runtime, we can just ignore the n argument, and use the abstraction barrier to ensure nobody can use this fact in anger. Thunk is a graded monad, that is, a monad parameterized by a monoid, which uses mempty for pure, and mappend for binding. We can show that Thunk does form a graded monad:

  pure : a β†’ Thunk 0 a
  pure x = x

  infixl 1 _>>=_
  _>>=_ : Thunk m a β†’ (a β†’ Thunk n b) β†’ Thunk (m + n) b
  x >>= f = f x

  infixr 1 _=<<_
  _=<<_ : (a β†’ Thunk n b) β†’ Thunk m a β†’ Thunk (m + n) b
  f =<< x = f x

We’ll omit the proofs that Thunk really is a monad, but it’s not hard to see; Thunk is truly just the identity monad.

Thunk is also equipped with two further operations; the ability to mark a computation cycle, and the ability to extract the underlying value by throwing away the complexity analysis:

  infixr 0 !_
  !_ : Thunk n a β†’ Thunk (suc n) a
  !_ a = a

  force : {a : Set} β†’ Thunk n a β†’ a
  force x = x

Here, !_ is given a low, right-spanning precedence, which means it’s relatively painless to annotate with:

_ : Thunk 3 β„•
_ = ! ! ! pure 0


Our definitions are β€œopt-in,” in the sense that the compiler won’t yell at you if you forget to call !_ somewhere a computational step happens. Thus, we require users to follow the following conventions:

  1. Every function body must begin with a call to !_.
  2. force may not be used in a function body.
  3. None of pure, _>>=_ nor !_ may be called partially applied.

The first convention ensures we count everything that should be counted. The second ensures we don’t cheat by discarding complexity information before it’s been counted. And the third ensures we don’t accidentally introduce uncounted computation steps.

The first two are pretty obvious, but the third is a little subtler. Under the hood, partial application gets turned into a lambda, which introduces a computation step to evaluate. But that step won’t be ticked via !_, so we will have lost the bijection between our programs and their analyses.

Lazy Data TypesπŸ”—

The paper shows us how to define a lazy vector. VecL a c n is a vector of n elements of type a, where the cost of forcing each subsequent tail is c:

data VecL (a : Set) (c : β„•) : β„• β†’ Set where
  [] : VecL a c 0
  _∷_ : a β†’ Thunk c (VecL a c n) β†’ VecL a c (suc n)

infixr 5 _∷_

Let’s try to write fmap for VecL. We’re going to need a helper function, which delays a computation by artificially inflating its number of steps:

  wait : {n : β„•} β†’ Thunk m a β†’ Thunk (n + m) a
  wait m = m

(the paper follows its own rules and ensures that we call !_ every time we wait, thus it comes with an extra suc in the type of wait. It gets confusing, so we’ll use this version instead.)

Unfortunately, the paper also plays fast and loose with its math. It’s fine, because the math is right, but the code presented in the paper doesn’t typecheck in Agda. As a workaround, we need to enable rewriting:

open import Agda.Builtin.Equality.Rewrite
{-# REWRITE +-suc +-identityΚ³ #-}

We’ll also need to be able to lift equalities over the Thunk time bounds:

cast : m ≑ n β†’ Thunk m a β†’ Thunk n a
cast eq x rewrite eq = x

Finally, we can write fmap:

  : {c fc : β„•}
  β†’ (a β†’ Thunk fc b)
  β†’ VecL a c n
  β†’ Thunk (2 + fc) (VecL b (2 + fc + c) n)
fmap f [] = wait (pure [])
fmap {c = c} f (x ∷ xs)
          = ! f x
  >>= \x' β†’ ! pure (x' ∷ cast (+-comm c _) (xs >>= fmap f))

This took me about an hour to write; I’m not convinced the approach here is as β€œlightweight” as claimed. Of particular challenge was figuring out the actual time bounds on this thing. The problem is that we usually reason about asymptotics via Big-O notation, which ignores all of these constant factors. What would be nicer is the hypothetical type:

  : {c fc : β„•}
  β†’ (a β†’ Thunk (O fc) b)
  β†’ VecL a c n
  β†’ Thunk (O c) (VecL b (O (fc + c)) n)

where every thunk is now parameterized by O x saying our asymptotics are bounded by x. We’ll see about fleshing this idea out later. For now, we can power through on the paper, and write vector insertion. Let’s assume we have a constant time comparison function for a:

  _<=_ : a β†’ a β†’ Thunk 1 Bool

First things first, we need another waiting function to inflate the times on every tail:

    : {c' : β„•} {c : β„•}
    β†’ VecL a c' n
    β†’ Thunk 1 (VecL a (2 + c + c') n)
waitL [] = ! pure []
waitL (x ∷ xs) = ! pure (x ∷ wait (waitL =<< xs))

and a helper version of if_then_else_ which accounts in Thunk:

if_then_else_ : Bool β†’ a β†’ a β†’ Thunk 1 a
if false then t else f = ! pure f
if true  then t else f = ! pure t
infixr 2 if_then_else_

we can thus write vector insertion:

    : {c : β„•}
    β†’ a
    β†’ VecL a c n
    β†’ Thunk 4 (VecL a (4 + c) (suc n))
insert x [] = wait (pure (x ∷ wait (pure [])))
insert x (y ∷ ys)
         = ! x <= y
  >>= \b β†’ ! if b then x ∷ wait (waitL (y ∷ ys))
                  else y ∷ (insert x =<< ys)

The obvious followup to insert is insertion sort:

open import Data.Vec using (Vec; []; _∷_; tail)

sort : Vec a n β†’ Thunk (1 + 5 * n) (VecL a (4 * n) n)
sort [] = ! pure []
sort (x ∷ xs) = ! insert x =<< sort xs

This thing looks linear, but insertion sort is O(n2)O(n^2), so what gives? The thing to notice is that the cost of each tail is linear, but we have O(n)O(n) tails, so forcing the whole thing indeed works out to O(n2)O(n^2). We can now show head runs in constant time:

head : {c : β„•} β†’ VecL a c (suc n) β†’ Thunk 1 a
head (x ∷ _) = ! pure x

and that we can find the minimum element in linear time:

minimum : Vec a (suc n) β†’ Thunk (8 + 5 * n) a
minimum xs = ! head =<< sort xs

Interestingly, Agda can figure out the bounds on minimum by itself, but not any of our other functions.

The paper goes on to show that we can define last, and then get a quadratic-time maximum using it:

last : {c : β„•} β†’ VecL a c (suc n) β†’ Thunk (1 + suc n * suc c) a
last (x ∷ xs) = ! last' x =<< xs
    last' : {c : β„•} β†’ a β†’ VecL a c n β†’ Thunk (1 + n * suc c) a
    last' a [] = ! pure a
    last' _ (x ∷ xs) = ! last' x =<< xs

Trying to define maximum makes Agda spin, probably because of one of my rewrite rules. But here’s what it should be:

maximum : Vec a (suc n) β†’ Thunk (13 + 14 * n + 4 * n ^ 2) a
maximum xs = ! last =<< sort xs

The paper goes on to say some thinks about partially evaluating thunks, and then shows its use to measure some popular libraries. But I’m more interested in making the experience better.

Extra-curricular Big OπŸ”—

Clearly this is all too much work. When we do complexity analysis by hand, we are primarily concerned with complexity classes, not exact numbers of steps. How hard would it be to generalize all of this so that Thunk takes a function bounding the runtime necessary to produce its value?

First, a quick refresher on what big-O means. A function f:N→Nf : \mathbb{N} \to \mathbb{N} is said to be in O(g)O(g) for some g:N→Ng : \mathbb{N} \to \mathbb{N} iff:

βˆƒ(Ck:N).βˆ€(n:N,k≀n).f(n)≀Cβ‹…g(n) \exists (C k : \mathbb{N}). \forall (n : \mathbb{N}, k \leq n). f(n) \leq C \cdot g(n)

That is, there is some point kk at which g(n)g(n) stays above f(n)f(n). This is the formal definition, but in practice we usually play rather fast and loose with our notation. For example, we say β€œquicksort is O(nβ‹…log⁑n)O(n\cdot\log{n}) in the length of the list”, or β€œO(nβ‹…log⁑m)O(n\cdot\log{m}) , where mm is the size of the first argument.”

We need to do a bit of elaboration here to turn these informal statements into a formal claim. In both cases, there should are implicit binders inside the O(βˆ’)O(-), binding nn in the first, and m,nm, n in the second. These functions then get instantiated with the actual sizes of the lists. It’s a subtle point, but it needs to be kept in mind.

The other question is how the hell do we generalize that definition to multiple variables? Easy! We replace n:N,k≀nn : \mathbb{N}, k \leq n with a vector of natural numbers, subject to the constraint that they’re all bigger than kk.

OK, let’s write some code. We can give the definition of O:

open import Data.Vec.Relation.Unary.All
    using (All; _∷_; [])
    renaming (tail to tailAll)

record O {vars : β„•} (g : Vec β„• vars  β†’ β„•) : Set where
    f : Vec β„• vars β†’ β„•
    C : β„•
    k : β„•
    def : (n : Vec β„• vars) β†’ All (k ≀_) n β†’ f n ≀ C * g n

The generality of O is a bit annoying for the common case of being a function over one variable, so we can introduce a helper function O':

hoist : {a b : Set} β†’ (a β†’ b) β†’ Vec a 1 β†’ b
hoist f (x ∷ []) = f x

O' : (β„• β†’ β„•) β†’ Set
O' f = O (hoist f)

We can trivially lift any function f into O f:

O-build : {vars : β„•} β†’ (f : Vec β„• vars β†’ β„•) β†’ O f
O-build f .O.f = f
O-build f .O.C = 1
O-build f .O.k = 0
O-build f .O.def n x = ≀-refl

and also trivially weaken an O into using more variables:

O-weaken : βˆ€ {vars} {f : Vec β„• vars β†’ β„•} β†’ O f β†’ O (f ∘ tail)
O-weaken o .O.f = o .O.f ∘ tail
O-weaken o .O.C = o .O.C
O-weaken o .O.k = o .O.k
O-weaken o .O.def (_ ∷ x) (_ ∷ eq) = o .O.def x eq

More interestingly, we can lift a given O' into a higher power, witnessing the fact that eg, something of O(n2)O(n^2) is also O(n3)O(n^3):

O-^-suc : {n : β„•} β†’ O' (_^ n) β†’ O' (_^ suc n)
O-^-suc o .O.f = o .O.f
O-^-suc o .O.C = o .O.C
O-^-suc o .O.k = suc (o .O.k)
O-^-suc {n} o .O.def xs@(x ∷ []) ps@(s≀s px ∷ []) =
    f xs               β‰€βŸ¨ def xs (≀-step px ∷ []) βŸ©β‰€
    C * (x ^ n)        β‰€βŸ¨ *-monoΛ‘-≀ (x ^ n) (m≀m*n C (s≀s z≀n)) βŸ©β‰€
    (C * x) * (x ^ n)  β‰‘βŸ¨ *-assoc C x (x ^ n) βŸ©β‰‘
    C * (x * (x ^ n))
    open O o
    open ≀-Reasoning

However, the challenge is and has always been to simplify the construction of Thunk bounds. Thus, we’d like the ability to remove low-order terms from Os. We can do this by eliminating nkn^k whenever there is a nkβ€²n^{k'} term around with k≀kβ€²k \leq k':

    : {z x y k k' : β„•}
    β†’ k ≀ k'
    β†’ O' (\n β†’ z + x * n ^ k + y * n ^ k')
    β†’ O' (\n β†’ z + n ^ k')

The z variable here lets us compose O-drop-low terms, by subsequently instantiating

As a special case, we can eliminate constant terms via O-drop-low by first expanding constant terms to be coefficients of n0n^0:

  : {x y k : β„•}
  β†’ O' (\n β†’ x + y * n ^ k)
  β†’ O' (\n β†’ n ^ k)
O-drop-1 {x} {y} {k} o rewrite sym (*-identityΚ³ x) =
  O-drop-low {0} {x} {y} {k = 0} {k} z≀n o

With these functions, we can now easily construct O' values for arbitrary one-variable functions:

_ : O' (_^ 1)
_ = O-drop-1 {4} {5} {1} $ O-build $ hoist \n β†’ 4 + 5 * n ^ 1

_ : O' (_^ 2)
_ = O-drop-1 {4} {1} {2}
  $ O-drop-low {4} {5} {3} {1} {2} (s≀s z≀n)
  $ O-build $ hoist \n β†’ 4 + 5 * n ^ 1 + 3 * n ^ 2

Finally, we just need to build a version of Thunk that is adequately lifted over the same functions we use for O:

  OThunk : {vars : β„•} β†’ (Vec β„• vars β†’ β„•) β†’ Set β†’ Set
  OThunk _ a = a

  OThunk' : (β„• β†’ β„•) β†’ Set β†’ Set
  OThunk' f = OThunk (hoist f)

The limit function can be used to lift a Thunk into an OThunk:

    : {vars : β„•} {f : Vec β„• vars β†’ β„•} {a : Set}
    β†’ (v : Vec β„• vars)
    β†’ (o : O f)
    β†’ Thunk (o .O.f v) a β†’ OThunk f a
  limit _ _ x = x

and we can now give an asymptotic bound over sort:

o2 : O' (_^ 1)
o2 = O-drop-1 {1} {5} {1} $ O-build $ hoist \n -> 1 + 5 * n

linearHeadSort : Vec a n β†’ OThunk' (_^ 1) (VecL a (4 * n) n)
linearHeadSort {n = n} v = limit (n ∷ []) o2 $ sort v


I’m traveling right now, and ran out of internet on publication day, which means I don’t have a copy of the paper in front of me as I write this (foolish!) Overall, the paper is slightly interesting, though I don’t think there’s anything especially novel here. Sticking the runtime behavior into the type is pretty much babby’s first example of graded monads, and we don’t even get asymptotics out of it! Instead we need to push big polynomials around, and explicitly call wait to make different branches work out.

The O stuff I’ve presented here alleviates a few of those problems; as it allows us to relatively-easily throw away the polynomials and just work with the highest order terms. A probably better approach would be to throw away the functions, and use a canonical normalizing-form to express the asymptotes. Then we could define a \lub\lub operator over OThunks, and define:

_>>=_ : OThunk f a β†’ (a β†’ OThunk g b) β†’ OThunk (f βŠ” g) b

to let us work compositionally in the land of big O.

My biggest takeaway here is that the techniques described in this paper are probably not powerful enough to be used in anger. Or, at least, not if you actually want to get any work done. Between the monads, polynomials, and waiting, the experience could use a lot of TLC.