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Futhark on The Array Cast

Posted on October 3, 2022 by Troels Henriksen

The latest episode of The Array Cast, the worlds premier podcast on APL and related matters, had me on as a guest to talk about Futhark and array programming. This was a continuation of the preceding episode, which focused on what makes a language an array language in the first place. We tend to call Futhark an array language, despite significantly deviating from most such languages, and I suppose the Array Cast panel was curious about how and why. I had a delightful time, and I recommend listening not just to the episodes linked above, but also the podcast in general. Most episodes are quite accessible even to people with no APL experience - although it doesn’t take more than an afternoon to pick up enough APL to get the gist of things, so why not do that?. Still, unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, I feel there are a few things I did not make sufficiently clear, so here’s a followup post with elaborations.

Rank polymorphism

First: rank is the number of dimensions of a multidimensional array. For example, a vector has rank 1, and a matrix has rank 2. Perhaps the defining trait of array programming is rank polymorphism. This is the idea of having functions or operators that apply can be applied to arrays of any rank. The simplest example is a + operator that can be applied to vectors, which then adds elements piecewise:

[1,2,3] + [4,5,6] == [5,7,9]

Squinting a bit, and using terminology from functional programming, rank polymorphism can be seen as every function implicitly maping over its arguments. In some implementations of rank polymorphism, such as the APL successor J, this is achieved by a consistently applied set of rules such as leading axis theory. In others, such as original APL or the Python library NumPy, it is more ad-hoc, and can possibly be customised by the programmer. In general, programmer-written functions can inspect the shape of their arguments and make decisions based on what they find.


Futhark does not have rank polymorphism in any form. You have to write out the maps yourself. There are two reasons for this:

  1. Futhark was not originally conceptualised as a language in the APL tradition, but rather as a restricted ML dialect. Futhark’s arrays are an evolution of ML lists, not the multidimensional arrays of APL.

  2. Rank polymorphism is tricky to handle in a type system.

Point 1 can be rephrased merely as “we didn’t think of it” and is not worth discussing further, but point 2 is more interesting. There are indeed statically typed array languages, but they are rare. One interesting case is Single-Assignment C (SAC), a statically typed array language intended for high-performance parallel execution. It looks superficially similar to C, but it is a pure functional language with strong APL influences, and it supports a rich variant of statically typed rank polymorphism. SAC did highly efficient functional programming long before it was popular, yet is strangely little known. I wonder if this is because the initial work on SAC came at the tail end of the parallelism enthusiasm of the 80s, and right at the beginning of the incredible gains in sequential performance that occurred in the 90s. Beyond its performance, SAC also made innovations in rank polymorphism, and in particular supports the notion of rank specialisation, where a function can contain specialised definitions for certain shapes of input. This can be used to handle special cases more efficiently, but I also recently read a paper that used rank specialisation of a recursive function to explore the design space of algorithms for prefix sums. Rank polymorphism is most often used as a fairly straightforward shorthand, so I find it exciting when it is used as a more subtle control flow mechanism.

SAC has a static type system and supports rank polymorphism, but not much else. In particular, SAC does not support parametric polymorphism. It is my impression that rank polymorphism is challenging to support alongside many other desirable type system features. The most advanced work in this area is Remora, which is essentially a statically typed APL (minus the notation - Remora uses s-expressions). Remora is impressive work that deserves more careful study from both myself and others, but it is also very complicated. Perhaps too complicated to be useful by the usual target audience of array languages, which is traditionally thought to be “domain experts” and “problem solvers”, meaning those well-adjusted people who are primarily concerned with something beyond the programming language itself.

As an example, consider a language that supports both rank polymorphism and parametric polymorphism. Now consider a function of the following type:

val tally 'a : [*]a -> i64

I’m using pseudo-Futhark syntax, because that’s the blog you’re reading. The [*] notation is stolen from SAC and indicates that the array argument to tally can be of any rank. The tally function returns the total number of elements in the argument.

Sounds simple, right? But what happens if we apply tally to a matrix, e.g:

tally [[1,2,3],[4,5,6]]

Whenever we check a polymorphic function application, we have to instantiate the type parameters (here a) with a concrete type. But do we with a=[3]i64 meaning the array argument has shape [2] and the function returns 2, or with a=i64 such that the argument has shape [2][3] and the function returns 6? As you can see, this is semantically significant!

We can come up with a rule: we always instantiate such that shapes cover as many dimensions as possible. But this makes type inference more difficult. If we have an application tally A and we’re not quite sure what A is yet, what do we do? This is particularly difficult for more complex functions where the rank of the input also affects the rank of the output. As I understand it, most of Remora’s complexity comes from the desire to answer such questions.

Rank polymorphism in future Futhark

Current Futhark programming style involves typing map a lot. This can get pretty verbose, but we have been reluctant to add complexity to the type system. However, we think we have an idea for how to support a very simple form of rank polymorphism. The idea is that instead of making functions rank-polymorphic, we do it for function application. Intuitively, our idea is that when the type checker sees an application

f A

that would be a type error just from the types of f and A, it will see if the application can be made well-typed simply by adding enough maps on top of f:

(map (map f)) A

That’s basically it. It also generalises to binary operators, such as

A + B

which is equivalent to

(+) A B

and can thus be rewritten to

map2 (+) A B

There will certainly be cases where it doesn’t work, such as if the type of the function or its arguments is not sufficiently well known at the point of application, but in most cases this “automatic map insertion” should do the right thing. And when it doesn’t and the type checker complains, the programmer can just insert the maps manually. This facility is purely a shorthand, and explicit mapping is still available.

Is this as powerful as actual rank-polymorphic functions? No. For example, the tally function used above cannot be implemented. But automatic map insertion (marketing name: AUTOMAP) fits well within Futhark’s ML-flavoured type system.

Does Futhark reject all of APL?

If Futhark was designed as an ML, and it rejects the two main characteristics of APL-style languages (concise notation and rank polymorphism), does that constitute a total rejection of all things APL? Not at all! Beyond its merits as a language, APL and its successors remain interesting as a source of decades of experience expressing algorithms and logic as bulk transformations of arrays, much of which are in principle parallel, even if most APL implementations are actually single-threaded. Early APL provided a programming vocabulary for humans that encouraged thinking in terms of bulk operations on arrays. It’s a remarkable coincidence that this also turned out to be a decent fit for vector machines invented decades later. Ken Iverson’s Turing Award Lecture discussed Notation as a Tool of Thought, and I think the style of thinking (and programming!) encouraged by APL and its relatives is still worth studying and incorporating into our daily work as programmers.