This past July, Max New asked me about the relationship between bidirectional typechecking and semantic notions like polarization and call-by-push-value. I told him it was complicated, and that I would try to write something about the relationship. I was reminded of this since a couple of days ago, Conor McBride wrote a blog post where he laid out how he approaches bidirectional type systems. This is a fantastic post, and you should read it (probably twice or more, actually).

In his post, he remarks:

I like my type systems to be bidirectional. Different people mean different things by the word “bidirectional”, and I’m one of them. Some people relate the notion to “polarity”, and I’m not one of them.

I'm someone who would like to join the club Conor abjures, but I don't know how to!

It sure *looks* like bidirectional typechecking has a deep relationship to polarization or call-by-push-value, but I don't know how to make it work correctly. So, in this post is to explain why people think it does some deep semantic import, and then I'll talk about the mismatch that creates a problem I don't know the right way to handle. (Also, I apologize in advance for the lack of citations -- I really want to get this post out the door. If I didn't cite a paper you like (or even wrote), please link to it in the comments.)

The reason that people think that bidirectional typechecking must have a deep semantic meaning arises from how it works out in the simply-typed lambda calculus. Let's try writing some things down and seeing what happens. First, recall that bidirectional typechecking categorizes all terms as either "checking" or "synthesizing" and introduces *two* mutually recursive typing judgements for them.

\[\newcommand{\bnfalt}{\;\;|\;\;} \newcommand{\To}{\Rightarrow} \newcommand{\From}{\Leftarrow} \newcommand{\rule}[2]{\frac{\displaystyle \begin{matrix} #1 \end{matrix}}{\displaystyle #2}} \newcommand{\check}[3]{{#1} \vdash {#2} \From {#3}} \newcommand{\synth}[3]{{#1} \vdash {#2} \To {#3}} \newcommand{\lam}[1]{\lambda {#1}.\;} \newcommand{\inj}[2]{\mathsf{in}_{#1}({#2})} \newcommand{\case}[5]{\mathsf{case}({#1}, \inj{1}{#2} \to {#3}, \inj{2}{#4} \to {#5})} \newcommand{\match}[2]{\mathsf{match}\;{#1}\;\mathsf{of}\;[ #2 ]} \newcommand{\arm}[2]{{#1} \to {#2}} \newcommand{\downshift}[1]{\downarrow{#1}} \newcommand{\upshift}[1]{\uparrow{#1}} \newcommand{\thunk}[1]{\left\{{#1}\right\}} \newcommand{\return}[1]{\mathsf{return}\;#1} \newcommand{\fun}[1]{\lambda\;#1} \newcommand{\checkn}[3]{{#1} \rhd {#2} \From {#3}} \newcommand{\checkp}[2]{{#1} \leadsto {#2}} \newcommand{\spine}[4]{{#1} \vdash {#2} : {#3} \gg {#4}} \newcommand{\unit}{()} \]

\[ \begin{array}{llcl} \mbox{Types} & A & ::= & b \bnfalt A \to B \\ \mbox{Contexts} & \Gamma & ::= & \cdot \bnfalt \Gamma, x:A \\ \mbox{Checking} & e & ::= & \lam{x}{e} \bnfalt t \\ \mbox{Synthesizing} & t & ::= & x \bnfalt t\;e \bnfalt e : A \\ \end{array} \]

We'll start with a pretty minimal calculus -- we've got a base type \(b\), and functions. Contexts work as usual, giving variables their types, but terms are divided into *checking terms* and *synthesizing terms*. Checking terms are either introduction forms (just lambda-abstraction, here) or any synthesizing term (the intuition is that if we can infer a type for a term, we can surely check its type as well). Synthesizing terms are either variables (we can just look up their type in the context) applications, or explicitly annotated terms.

You can see the intro/elim pattern in the first line -- when we check a lambda-abstraction (an introduction form) against a type \(A \to B\), we put the variable \(x\) in the context at type \(A\), and check the body at type \(B\). When we apply a function, we first *infer* a type \(A \to B\) for the function expression, which gives us a type \(A\) to *check* the argument against.

So far, this is pretty standard stuff. Now, let's tweak the rules slightly.

\[\begin{matrix} \rule{ \check{\Gamma, x:A}{e}{B} } { \check{\Gamma}{\lam{x}{e}}{A \to B} } & \rule{ \synth{\Gamma}{t}{A \to B} & \check{\Gamma}{e}{A} } { \synth{\Gamma}{t\;e}{B} } \\[1em] \rule{ \color{red}{\synth{\Gamma}{t}{b}} } { \color{red}{\check{\Gamma}{t}{b}} } & \color{red}{\mbox{(No annotation rule)}} \\[1em] \rule{ x:A \in \Gamma } { \synth{\Gamma}{x}{A} } & \end{matrix}\]Now, we've made two changes. First, we've *deleted* the annotation rule, and second, we've restricted the checking/synthesis switch to only occur at base types \(b\).

The effect of deleting the annotation rule is that it is not longer possible to write beta-reducible terms. A term in the simply-typed lambda-calculus written \((\lam{x:b}{x})\;y\) which reduces to \(y\) would be written \((\lam{x}{x} : b \to b)\;y\) in a bidirectional system -- but without annotations these terms can no longer be written.

The effect of restricting the check/synth switch rule is that it is no longer possible to write eta-expandable terms. If \(f : b \to b \to b\) and \(x : b\), then the term \(f\;x\) would synthesize the type \(b \to b\) in the original system. However, it no longer typechecks in our restricted system. To make it work, we have to

*eta-expand*the term, so that we write \(\lam{y}{f\;x\;y}\) instead. This now checks against \(b \to b\) as we expect.

So the joint-effect of these two restrictions is that only beta-normal, eta-long terms typecheck. The reason these terms are so important is that any two beta-eta equal terms will have the *same* normal form. So having a simple, easy characterization of these normal forms is really great! Moreover, this characterization is easy to extend to products:

This type system still characterizes normal forms in the STLC with units and products. Adding these constructors starts to give us a pattern:

- Introduction forms (lambda-abstractions, pairs, units) are
*checking*. - Elimination forms (applications, projections) are
*synthesizing*.

Since units + pairs + functions are syntax for everything in cartesian closed categories, this is actually pretty wonderful. We seem to have a simple rule for characterizing beta-normal, eta-long forms.

But what happens when we try to add sums to the language? Let's try to follow our recipe, and see what happens:

\[\begin{matrix} \rule{ \check{\Gamma}{e}{A_i} & i \in \{1,2\} } { \check{\Gamma}{\inj{i}{e}}{A_1 + A_2} } & \rule{ \synth{\Gamma}{t}{A_1 + A_2} & \check{\Gamma, x_1:A_1}{e_1}{C} & \check{\Gamma, x_2:A_2}{e_2}{C} } { \check{\Gamma}{\case{t}{x_1}{e_1}{x_2}{e_2}}{C} } \end{matrix}\]The introduction form seems to work. The elimination form is a bit more complicated -- it's the same syntax as always, but the checking/synthesis moding is a bit subtle. The expectation created by units/pairs/functions would be that both the scrutinee and the whole case form should synthesize, but expecting two branches with different contexts (i.e., \(\Gamma, x_1:A_1\) for \(e_1\) and \(\Gamma, x_2:A_2\) for \(e_2\)) to synthesize the same type is a morally dubious expectation (eg, it would not make sense in a dependently-typed setting). So we are led to say that case is checking, but that the scrutinee is synthesizing.

This imposes some restrictions on what does and doesn't count as a typeable term. For example, because \(\mathsf{case}\) is checking rather than synthesizing, we can never write an expression like:

\[a:((b \to A) + (b \to A)), x:b \vdash \case{a}{f}{f}{g}{g}\;x \From A\]

Instead of applying an argument to a case expression of function type, we have to push the arguments into the branches:

\[a:((b \to A) + (b \to A)), x:b \vdash \case{a}{f}{f\;x}{g}{g\;x} \From A\]

From the point of view of typing normal forms, this actually doesn't seem too bad, because most people would consider the second term simpler than the first, and so this gives us a "nicer" notion of normal form. However, this doesn't seem like a real explanation, since our rules permit things like the following:

\[\synth{f : b \to b, x:b+b}{f\;\case{x}{y}{y}{z}{z}}{b}\]

To get to a better explanation before the heat death of the universe, I'm going to skip over about 20 years of research, and jump straight to polarized type theory.

\[\begin{matrix} \mbox{Positive Types} & P & ::= & 1 \bnfalt P \times Q \bnfalt P + Q \bnfalt \downshift{N} \\ \mbox{Negative Types} & N & ::= & P \to N \bnfalt \upshift{P} \\ \mbox{Values} & v & ::= & () \bnfalt (v,v) \bnfalt \inj{i}{v} \bnfalt \thunk{t} \\ \mbox{Spines} & s & ::= & \cdot \bnfalt v\;s \\[1em] \mbox{Terms} & t & ::= & \return{v} \bnfalt \fun{\overrightarrow{\arm{p_i}{t_i}}} \bnfalt \match{x \cdot s}{\overrightarrow{\arm{p_i}{t_i}}} \\ \mbox{Patterns} & p & ::= & () \bnfalt (p,p') \bnfalt \inj{i}{p} \bnfalt \thunk{x} \\[1em] \mbox{Contexts} & \Gamma,\Delta & ::= & \cdot \bnfalt \Gamma, x:N \\ \mbox{Typing Values} & & & \check{\Gamma}{v}{P} \\ \mbox{Typing Spines} & & & \spine{\Gamma}{s}{N}{M} \\ \mbox{Typing Terms} & & & \checkn{\Gamma}{t}{N} \\ \mbox{Typing Patterns} & & & \checkp{p:P}{\Delta} \\ \end{matrix}\]The key idea in polarized type theory is to divide types into two categories, the *positive* types (sums, strict products, and suspended computations, denoted by \(P\)) and the *negative* types (basically, functions, denoted by \(N\)). Positive types are basically those that are eliminated with pattern matching, and the negative types are the ones that are eliminated by supplying arguments. Negatives types can be embedded into positive types using the "downshift" type \(\downshift{N}\) (representing suspended computations) and positive types can be embedded into the negatives using the "upshift" \(\upshift{P}\) (denoting computations producing \(P\)'s).

The funny thing about this setup is that despite arising from meditation upon invariants of proof theory, we end up with a syntax that is much closer to practical functional programming languages than the pure typed lambda calculus! For example, syntax for polarized calculi tends to have *pattern matching*. However, one price of this is a proliferation of judgements. We usually end up introducing separate categories of *values* (for introducing positive types) and *spines* (argument lists for elminating negative types), as well as *terms* (how to put values and spines together in computations, as well as introducing negative types) and *patterns* (how to eliminate positive types).

Now, let's talk through the rules. First up is the \(\check{\Gamma}{v}{P}\) judgement for checking the type of positive values.

\[\begin{matrix} \rule{} { \check{\Gamma}{()}{1} } & \rule{ \check{\Gamma}{v}{P} & \check{\Gamma}{v'}{Q} } { \check{\Gamma}{(v,v')}{P \times Q} } \\[1em] \rule{ \check{\Gamma}{v}{P_i} & i \in \{1,2\} } { \check{\Gamma}{\inj{i}{v}}{P_1 + P_2} } & \rule{ \checkn{\Gamma}{t}{N} } { \check{\Gamma}{\thunk{t}}{\downshift{N}} } \end{matrix}\]The rules for units, pairs and sums are the same as always. The rule for downshift says that if a term \(t\) checks at a negative type \(N\), then the thunked term \(\thunk{t}\) will check against the downshifted type \(\downshift{N}\).

We'll see the rules for terms in a bit, but next will come the rules for spines, in the judgement \(\spine{\Gamma}{s}{N}{M}\). This judgement says that if the spine \(s\) is applied to a head of type \(N\), it will produce a result of type \(M\). In this judgement, the type \(N\) is an algorithmic input, and the type \(M\) is an output.

\[\begin{matrix} \rule{ } { \spine{\Gamma}{\cdot}{N}{N} } \qquad \rule{ \check{\Gamma}{v}{P} & \spine{\Gamma}{s}{N}{M} } { \spine{\Gamma}{v\;s}{P \to N}{M} } % \\[1em] % \rule{ \forall i < n.\; & \checkp{p_i:P}{\Delta_i} & \checkn{\Gamma, \Delta_i}{t_i}{M} } % { \spine{\Gamma}{\match{x \cdot s}{\overrightarrow{\arm{p_i}{t_i}}^{i < n}}}{\upshift{P}}{M} } \end{matrix}\]The first rule says that if you have an empty argument list then the result is the same as the input, and the second rule says that if \(v\) is a value of type \(P\), and \(s\) is an argument list sending \(N\) to \(M\), then the extended argument list \(v\;s\) sends the function type \(P \to N\) to \(M\).

With values and spines in hand, we can talk about terms, in the term typing judgement \(\checkn{\Gamma}{t}{N}\), which checks that a term \(t\) has the type \(N\).

\[\begin{matrix} \rule{ \check{\Gamma}{v}{P} } { \checkn{\Gamma}{\return{v}}{\upshift{P}} } \qquad \rule{ \forall i < n.\; & \checkp{p_i:P}{\Delta_i} & \checkn{\Gamma, \Delta_i}{t_i}{N} } { \checkn{\Gamma}{\fun{\overrightarrow{\arm{p_i}{t_i}}^{i < n}}}{P \to N} } \\[1em] \rule{ x:M \in \Gamma & \spine{\Gamma}{s}{M}{\upshift{Q}} & \forall i < n.\; \checkp{p_i:Q}{\Delta_i} & \checkn{\Gamma, \Delta_i}{t_i}{\upshift{P}} } { \checkn{\Gamma}{\match{x \cdot s}{\overrightarrow{\arm{p_i}{t_i}}^{i < n}}}{\upshift{P}} } \end{matrix}\]The rule for \(\return{v}\) says that we can embed a value \(v\) of type \(P\) into the upshift type \(\upshift{P}\) by immediately returning it. Lambda abstractions are pattern-style -- instead of a lambda binder \(\lam{x}{t}\), we give a whole list of patterns and branches \(\fun{\overrightarrow{\arm{p_i}{t_i}}}\) to check at the type \(P \to N\). As a result, we need a judgement \(\checkp{p_i:P}{\Delta_i}\) which gives the types of the bindings \(\Delta_i\) of the pattern \(p_i\), and then we check each \(t_i\) against the result type \(N\).

The match statement \(\match{x\cdot s}{\overrightarrow{\arm{p_i}{t_i}}}\) also has similar issues in its typing rule. First, it finds a variable in the context, applies some arguments to it to find a value result of type \(\upshift{Q}\), and then pattern matches against type \(Q\). So we check that the spine \(s\) sends \(M\) to the type \(\upshift{Q}\), and then check that the patterns \(p_i\) yield variables \(\Delta_i\) at the type \(Q\), and then check the \(t_i\) against the type \(\upshift{P}\).

Restricting the type at which we can match forces us to eta-expand terms of function type. Also, these rules omit a side-condition for pattern coverage. (I have an old blog post about how to do that if you are curious.)

Both lambda-abstraction and application/pattern-matching need the judgement \(\checkp{p:P}{\Delta}\) to find the types of the bindings. The rules for these are straightforward: \[\begin{matrix} \rule{ } { \checkp{\thunk{x} {:} \downshift{\!N}}{x:N} } & \rule{ } { \checkp{\unit : 1}{\cdot} } \\[1em] \rule{ \checkp{p_1 : P_1}{\Delta_1} & \checkp{p_2 : P_2}{\Delta_2} } { \checkp{(p_1,p_2) : P_1 \times P_2}{\Delta_1, \Delta_2} } & \rule{ \checkp{p:P_i}{\Delta} & i \in \{1,2\} } { \checkp{\inj{i}{p} : P_1 + P_2}{\Delta} } \end{matrix}\]Units yield no variables at type \(1\), pair patterns \((p_1, p_2)\) return the variables of each component, coproduct injections \(\inj{i}{p}\) return the variables of the sub-pattern \(p\), and thunk patterns \(\thunk{x}\) at type \(\downshift{N}\) return that variable \(x\) at type \(N\).

At this point, it sure looks like we have a perfect bidirectional type system for a polarized calculus. What's the problem? The problem is that I palmed a card! Here's the relevant bit of the grammar I kicked things off with: \[\begin{matrix} \ldots \\ \mbox{Contexts} & \Gamma,\Delta & ::= & \cdot \bnfalt \Gamma, \color{red}{x:N} \\ \ldots \end{matrix}\]The context \(\Gamma\) has been restricted to *only* contain variables of negative type. It doesn't allow variables of positive type! And, I don't know how to add it in the "right" way. If we wanted positive variables (in fact, call-by-push-value *only* has positive variables), we could add them in the following way:

So a variable pattern at value type simply binds the variable at that type, and when we use a value variable we have the check that the type in the context matches the type that we're checking the term at.

And that's the wrong thing to do! The bidirectional recipe says that we should check equality of types *only* when we switch between checking and synthesis, and so while this rule might or might not *work*, it's clearly not arranged the information flow properly, since we have a random-looking subsumption test in the value variable rule.

Some additional idea is needed, and I'm not sure what, yet.