Recursion Schemes


Recursion schemes are an abstraction for structured recursion that ensure runtime safety and provide powerful abstractions for recursive datatypes.

Arbitrary recursion

The traditional definition of a linked list uses arbitrary recursion.

// The generic type parameter is omitted for simplicity
sealed class IntList
object Nil : IntList()
data class Cons(val head: Int, val tail: IntList) : IntList()

Here, Nil is the empty list and Cons is an element plus another list. Instances of this can be created by chaining Cons constructors.

import arrow.*
import arrow.core.*
import arrow.typeclasses.*
import arrow.recursion.*

Cons(3, Cons(2, Cons(1, Nil)))
// Cons(head=3, tail=Cons(head=2, tail=Cons(head=1, tail=arrow.recursion.Nil@565de611)))

However, it would be nicer to have a function to do this for us. We can use arbitrary recursion to do this. We’ll call the function downFrom.

fun downFrom(i: Int): IntList =
  if (i <= 0) Nil
  else Cons(i, downFrom(i - 1))

// Cons(head=3, tail=Cons(head=2, tail=Cons(head=1, tail=arrow.recursion.Nil@565de611)))

We can also use arbitrary recursion to do computation with this data structure. For example, we might want to multiply every element in the list.

fun multiply(list: IntList): Int =
  when (list) {
    Nil -> 1
    is Cons -> list.head * multiply(list.tail)

// 6

Both the downFrom and multiply functions are arbitrarily recursive functions; they both call themselves in their definition. IntList itself is an arbitrarily recursive type for the same reason. However, there is a problem with arbitrary recursion: it is impossible to guarantee that an arbitrarily recursive function is stack safe.

Folds and unfolds

fold is a familiar function to most functional programmers, and is used whenever a collection needs to be collapsed into a single element. The multiply function above can be implemented much more simply using fold.

fun <A> fold(list: IntList, onNil: A, onCons: (Int, A) -> A): A =
  when (list) {
    Nil -> onNil
    is Cons -> onCons(list.head, fold(list.tail, onNil, onCons))

fun multiply(list: IntList): Int = fold(list, 1) { a, b -> a * b }

unfold is the less commonly known opposite of fold; it takes in an initial element and generates a collection (you may recognize it as the generateT functions in the kotlin standard library). The downFrom function can be implemented much more simply using unfold.

fun <A> unfold(init: A, produce: (A) -> Option<Tuple2<Int, A>>): IntList =
    { Nil },
    { (elem, next) -> Cons(elem, unfold(next, produce)) }

fun downFrom(i: Int): IntList =
  unfold(i) { x ->
    if (x <= 0) None
    else Some(x toT (x - 1))

The new implementations of downFrom and multiply use structured recursion. Here, fold and unfold are actually recursion schemes; they abstract out the recursion from the business logic of the function. Though the implementations above are not stack safe, they can easily be made so (at the cost of some readability), and any functions implemented with them would also become stack safe.

Generalized folds and unfolds

Lists are not the only data structure that can be folded and unfolded. Binary trees can also use this pattern.

sealed class IntTree
data class Leaf(val value: Int) : IntTree()
data class Node(val left: IntTree, val right: IntTree) : IntTree()
fun <A> fold(tree: IntTree, onLeaf: (Int) -> A, onNode: (A, A) -> A): A =
  when (tree) {
    is Leaf -> onLeaf(tree.value)
    is Node -> onNode(fold(tree.left, onLeaf, onNode), fold(tree.right, onLeaf, onNode))

fun <A> unfold(init: A, produce: (A) -> Either<Int, Tuple2<A, A>>): IntTree =
    { Leaf(it) },
    { (left, right) -> Node(unfold(left, produce), unfold(right, produce)) }

In fact, fold and unfold can be implemented for any recursive data structure, even complex ones like expression trees. However, it requires a lot of boilerplate and creates a lot of complexity. Luckily for us, Arrow’s recursion schemes allow us to solve this problem.

Recursive type parameters

The solution to this initially seems a bit strange. First, we must define a type’s pattern, where the recursive type is replaced with a type parameter.

@higherkind sealed class IntListPattern<out A> : IntListPatternOf<A> { companion object }
object NilPattern : IntListPattern<Nothing>()
@higherkind data class ConsPattern<out A>(val head: Int, val tail: A) : IntListPattern<A>()

While this type may look useless at first, it turns out that our original IntList and IntListPattern<IntList> are isomorphic – that is, they can easily be converted from one to another. For that matter, IntList is also isomorphic to IntListPattern<IntListPattern<IntList>>. In fact, applying IntListPattern to itself infinitely yields the original IntList type.

typealias IntList = IntListPattern<IntListPattern<IntListPattern<...>>>

Of course, this is not possible in Kotlin. However, we can use the Fix datatype (a type level recursion scheme) to emulate this.


typealias IntFixList = Fix<ForIntListPattern>

So why do this? We can now define a Functor instance for IntListPattern, allowing us to traverse into the structure.

interface IntListPatternFunctorInstance : Functor<ForIntListPattern> {
  override fun <A, B> IntListPatternOf<A>.map(f: (A) -> B): IntListPatternOf<B> {
    val lp = fix()
    return when (lp) {
      NilPattern -> NilPattern
      is ConsPattern -> ConsPattern(lp.head, f(lp.tail))

This can be used to implement fold and unfold for any Fix<F>, where F is a Functor (and hence for any recursive data structure) by using map to recursively descend into the structure.

Recursive and Corecursive

The Recursive typeclass provides cata, and the Corecursive typeclass provides ana, which are very similar to fold and unfold.

typealias Algebra<F, A> = (Kind<F, A>) -> A     // fold
typealias Coalgebra<F, A> = (A) -> Kind<F, A>   // unfold

fun <F, A> Functor<F>.cata(f: Fix<F>, alg: Algebra<F, Eval<A>>): A
fun <F, A> Functor<F>.ana(a: A, coalg: Coalgebra<F, A>): Fix<F>

We can use them to rewrite our multiply and downFrom functions.

// We extract these functions out for later use
val multiply: Algebra<ForIntListPattern, Eval<Int>> = { l ->
  val list = l.fix()
  when (list) {
    NilPattern ->
    is ConsPattern -> { it * list.head }

val downFrom: Coalgebra<ForIntListPattern, Int> = { i ->
  if (i <= 0) NilPattern
  else (i - 1).let { ConsPattern(it, it) }

fun multiply(list: IntFixList): Int = Fix.recursive().run {
  IntListPattern.functor().cata(list, multiply)

fun downFrom(i: Int): IntFixList = Fix.recursive().run {
  IntListPattern.functor().ana(i, downFrom).fix()

General recursion

So far, we’ve generalized fold and unfold into cata and ana which are recursion schemes for destroying and creating any recursive structure. By combining these, we can create a recursion scheme for general recursion.

fun factorial(i: Int): Int = IntListPattern.functor().hylo(multiply, downFrom, i)

Here we use the IntListPattern functor to model recursion which resembles a stack; we unfold a list as we traverse deeper into the call structure, then fold a list as we evaluate the result. This allows us to effectively model any recursive computation with recursion schemes, making them consistant and stack safe.




Tutorial partially adapted from Peeling the Banana: Recursion Schemes from First Principles by Zainab Ali

Contents partially adapted from Katalyst