Memoizing higher-order functions

Memoization incrementally converts functions into data structures. It pays off when a function is repeatedly applied to the same arguments and applying the function is more expensive than accessing the corresponding data structure.

In lazy functional memoization, the conversion from function to data structure happens all at once from a denotational perspective, and incrementally from an operational perspective. See Elegant memoization with functional memo tries and Elegant memoization with higher-order types.

As Ralf Hinze presented in Generalizing Generalized Tries, trie-based memoization follows from three simple isomorphisms involving functions types:

1 → a ≅ a

(a + b) → c ≅ (a → c) × (b → c)

(a × b) → c ≅ a → (b → c)

which correspond to the familiar laws of exponents

a ^ 1 = a

ca + b = ca × cb

ca × b = (cb)a

When applied as a transformation from left to right, each law simplifies the domain part of a function type. Repeated application of the rules then eliminate all function types or reduce them to functions of atomic types. These atomic domains are eliminated as well by additional mappings, such as between a natural number and a list of bits (as in patricia trees). Algebraic data types corresponding to sums of products and so are eliminated by the sum and product rules. Recursive algebraic data types (lists, trees, etc) give rise to correspondingly recursive trie types.

So, with a few simple and familiar rules, we can memoize functions over an infinite variety of common types. Have we missed any?

Yes. What about functions over functions?


  • 2010-07-22: Made the memoization example polymorphic and switched from pairs to lists. The old example accidentally coincided with a specialized version of trie itself.
  • 2011-02-27: updated some notation

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Elegant memoization with higher-order types

A while back, I got interested in functional memoization, especially after seeing some code from Spencer Janssen using the essential idea of Ralf Hinze’s paper Generalizing Generalized Tries. The blog post Elegant memoization with functional memo tries describes a library, MemoTrie, based on both of these sources, and using associated data types. I would have rather used associated type synonyms and standard types, but I couldn’t see how to get the details to work out. Recently, while playing with functor combinators, I realized that they might work for memoization, which they do quite nicely.

This blog post shows how functor combinators lead to an even more elegant formulation of functional memoization. The code is available as part of the functor-combo package.

The techniques in this post are not so much new as they are ones that have recently been sinking in for me. See Generalizing Generalized Tries, as well as Generic programming with fixed points for mutually recursive datatypes.


  • 2011-01-28: Fixed small typo: “b^^a^^” ⟼ “ba
  • 2010-09-10: Corrected Const definition to use newtype instead of data.
  • 2010-09-10: Added missing Unit type definition (as Const ()).

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