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Dispatching on Types with the Same UnionAll (but You Don’t Know the Type Beforehand)

A gist with the code in this post can be found here.

When planning a small library in Julia, I kept running into a similar problem across all of the type systems that I tried when looking for the proper abstraction. Briefly, I had a single parametric abstract type at the top of an arbitrary type hierarchy (with any number of abstract and concrete types below it, possibly added later by a user) and I needed to write a function that would only work on objects with the same UnionAll[1] types within the hierarchy. Furthermore, I wanted this to be automatic for all of the types in the hierarchy without the user having to write any code.

Here is a basic example. Suppose I have the types:

abstract type A{T} end
struct B{T} <: A{T} end
struct C{T} <: A{T} end
abstract type D{T} <: A{T} end
struct E{T} <: D{T} end
struct F{T} <: D{T} end

Here, D, E, and F are included to demonstrate that the type hierarchy can be arbitrarily complex and extended at any time by the user.

I want to define a function f(x, y) that does something when x and y come from the same UnionAll type, even if they are parameterized differently, and fails otherwise. For example:

x = B{Int64}()
y = B{Float32}()
z = C{Int64}()

f(x, y) # -> does something
f(x, z) # -> fails
f(y, z) # -> fails

A simple solution to this is to just require the user to implement f for their new types while providing a fall back f(::A, ::A) that fails. However, the library that I am writing has a very natural interface and adding more to it would have been undesirable. Also, this struck me as something that should be possible programmatically.

My first attempt to do it programmatically lead to method signatures similar to (the invalid code):

f(::X, ::Y) where {T, S, U<:A, X<:U{T}, Y<:U{S}} = ...

I was then pointed (by a JuliaLang member on Slack, though I can't remember who) to a partial solution of determining if two objects had the same UnionAll type:

sameunionall(::X, ::Y) where {X<:A, Y<:A} = !isabstracttype(typejoin(X, Y))

This can be rewritten for types as:

sameunionall(::Type{X}, ::Type{Y}) where {X<:A, Y<:A} = !isabstracttype(typejoin(X, Y))

Combining this with 'Holy-Traits' [2] via SimpleTraits.jl leads to a nice solution:

using SimpleTraits
@traitdef SameUnionAll{X, Y}
@traitimpl SameUnionAll{X, Y} <- sameunionall(X, Y)
@traitfn f(::X, ::Y) where {X<:A, Y<:A; SameUnionAll{X, Y}} = "yo"
@traitfn f(::X, ::Y) where {X<:A, Y<:A; !SameUnionAll{X, Y}} = "nah"

This can be tested out:

x = B{Int64}()
y = B{Float32}()
z = C{Int64}()
f(x, y) # -> "yo"
f(x, z) # -> "nah"
f(y, z) # -> "nah"

# added later by a user
struct G{T} <: D{T} end
f(G{Int16}(), x) # -> "nah"
f(G{Int16}(), G{BigFloat}()) # -> "yo"

One important note is that sameunionall is a pure method so f does not fall back to dynamic dispatch. This can be verified by checking:

julia> @code_warntype f(x, y)
1return "yo"

julia> @code_warntype f(x, z)
1return "nah"

This trick will be expanded on in a future post, but to whet the appetite I will briefly introduce the exact use case that I have. Suppose I have the following structure, where more "special algebra" types can be added at will by the user:

abstract type AbstractAlgebraElement{T} end
struct SpecialAlgebraElement{T<:Real} <: AbstractAlgebraElement{T} end
struct DifferentAlgebraElement{T<:Number} <: AbstractAlgebraElement{T} end

Objects of the same algebraic type but with different parameters should be compatible (for example, a ring of real numbers represented by Float32 vs one represented by Float64 are essentially the same thing here). As such, we should be able to promote between them so that this should work:

promote_type(SpecialAlgebraElement{Float64}, SpecialAlgebraElement{Float16}) # -> SpecialAlgebraElement{Float64}

but this should fail:

promote_type(SpecialAlgebraElement{Float64}, DifferentAlgebraElement{Float16})

As a final note, more idiomatic Julia code, comments, criticisms, etc. are always welcome. Please feel free to email me.