The Simple Essence of Algebraic Subtyping (Functional Pearl)
MLsub extends traditional Hindley-Milner type inference with subtyping while preserving compact principal types, an exciting new development. However, its specification in terms of biunification is difficult to understand, relying on the new concepts of bisubstitution and polar types, and making use of advanced notions from abstract algebra. In this paper, we show that these are in fact not essential to understanding the mechanisms at play in MLsub. We propose an alternative algorithm called Simple-sub, which can be implemented efficiently in under 500 lines of code (including parsing, simplification, and pretty-printing), looks more familiar, and is easier to understand.
We present an experimental evaluation of Simple-sub against MLsub on a million randomly-generated well-scoped expressions, showing that the two systems agree. The mutable automaton-based implementation of MLsub is quite far from its algebraic specification, leaving a lot of space for errors; in fact, our evaluation uncovered several bugs in it. We sketch more straightforward soundness and completeness arguments for Simple-sub, based on a syntactic specification of the type system.
This paper is meant to be light in formalism, rich in insights, and easy to consume for prospective designers of new type systems and programming languages. In particular, no abstract algebra is inflicted on readers.