July 13, 2018

Encoding Existential Types In TypeScript

In this post we will take a look at a use case where the encoding for existential types helped me create a small utility wrapper for the immutable-assign library.

The What

I have been using immutable-assign for updating immutable datastructures. This library provides the function iassign for deep immutable update on plain javascript objects. For example, if we have x = { a: { b: 1 } } then we can use iassign(x, x => x.a.b, x => 5) to obtain { a: { b: 5 } } without mutating x.

However, one thing that had been bothering me is updating multiple properties in one go. For example, if we want to update all values in { a: { b: 1, c: 2}, d: 3 } by 1. Then we have to do:

  { a: { b: 1, c: 2 }, d: 3 },
  x => x.a.b, x => x + 1),
  x => x.a.c, x => x + 1),
  x => x.d, x => x + 1);

We need one iassign for each property that is updated. At the end of the post we will be able to slightly compress this and use the following syntax:

  { a: { b: 1, c: 2}, d: 3 },
  over(x => x.a.b, x => x + 1),
  over(x => x.a.c, x => x + 1),
  over(x => x.d, x => x + 1),

The How Not

Why would we need something as scary sounding as ‘existential types’? Let’s have a first attempt without anything fancy. Our use case boils down to writing a function which takes a value of type S and then a collection of getters S => A and modifiers A => A. The type GetModOps<S, A> encodes a record with such a getter and modifier function. Then the focus function accumulates the results of consecutive iassign calls with these getters and modifiers, achieved by a reduce.

type GetModOps<S, A> = { get: (s: S) => A, modify: (a: A) => A };

function focus<S, A>(
  s: S,
  ...ops: GetModOps<S, A>[]
) {
  return ops.reduce((acc, op) => iassign(acc, op.get, op.modify), s);

That seemed simple enough, let’s try it out.

const x = { a: { b: 1 } };

  { get: x => x.a.b, modify: (x: number) => x + 1 }

Okay, let’s try a more complex example.

const x = { a: { b: 1, c: "a" } };

  { get: x => x.a.b, modify: (x: number) => x + 1 },
  { get: x => x.a.c, modify: (x: string) => x + "a" }, // error :(

Whoops, A type error! We can see what is going wrong by looking at how the generic types for focus are instantiated.

First the parameter x instantiates type S to { a: { b: number, c: string } }.

focus<{ a: { b: number, c: string } }, A>(x,
  ...ops: GetModOps<{ a: { b: number, c: string } }, A>[]

Now, the first passed GetModOps instantiates type A to number.

focus<{ a: { b: number, c: string } }, number>(x,
  { get: x => x.a.b, modify: (x: number) => x + 1 },
  ...ops: GetModOps<{ a: { b: number, c: string } }, number>[]

Then, the last GetModOps has type string where A was originally, but has now been instantiated to number.

focus<{ a: { b: number, c: string } }, ???>(x,
  { get: x => x.a.b, modify: (x: number) => x + 1 },
 A cannot be both string and number ! |
  { get: x => x.a.c, modify: (x: string) => x + "a" },

The type string and number do not unify and this results in a type error.

Currently, focus specifies that it works for any choice of S and A, but the choice of this S and A is fixed. So when we try to have updates focused on a property of type number and string at the same time it does not work.

Instead, what we intended is that the parameter A is existentially quantified on the type GetModOps. This means that for each op in ops there exists a type A for which we have an S => A and A => A.

The How

So, our intended focus function is more like this: focus works for all types S and each op in ops has a, potentially different, type A associated with it.

type GetModOps<S> = <exists A>{ get: (s: S) => A, modify: (a: A) => A }

function focus<S>(
  s: S,
  ...ops: GetModOps<S>[]
) {
  return ops.reduce((acc, op) => iassign(acc, op.get, op.modify), s);

Where <exists A> is invented syntax to specify the existential type A. Obviously, typescript does not support this syntax, so what do we do?

Luckily, we remember the incantation <exists A>(T<A>) = <R>(cont: (<A> (t: T<A>) => R)) => R from our spell book (slightly adapted to fit the syntax used in typescript).

We create the type GetMod<S> which encodes <exists A>(GetModOps<S, A>).

type GetModOps<S, A> = { get: (s: S) => A, modify: (a: A) => A };
type GetMod<S> = <R>(cont: <A>(t: GetModOps<S, A>) => R) => R;

… Let’s take a step back here, what exactly is GetMod and how do we use it?


The type GetMod has the form (_ => R) => R, which is the typical form of continuation passing style.

Let’s first take a look at the slightly simpler type NumberCont<R> = (cont: (x: number) => R) => R. It is a function that takes a function (x: number) => R as parameter. We can think of (x: number) => R as awaiting a number for completion, also known as a continuation. So, the following function yourNumber is waiting for a number to return a string.

function yourNumber(x: number): string {
  return ("your number is " + x);

Then, myNumber of type NumberCont<string> passes the value 1 to a continuation waiting for a number.

const myNumber: NumberCont<string> = cont => cont(1);

We obtain our result value by passing the continuation yourNumber to myNumber, or myNumber(yourNumber) return "your number is 1".

Polymorphic Continuations

The use of GetMod is very similar to the NumberCont type. To explain it, we will go back to the ‘more complicated’ example where we wanted to transform { a: { b: 1, c: "a" } } with the following modifications:

{ get: x => x.a.b, modify: x => x + 1 }
{ get: x => x.a.c, modify: x => x + "a" }

Let’s start with creating a focus function for this case specifically. We create a continuation corresponding to each of the modifications we want to apply. The first continuation waits for a GetModOps and applies it to x. We obtain the result of the modification by passing the continuation to the modification, remember that a modification of type GetMod will call the passed continuation with a provided value. The interesting part is that the type parameter A of each continuation is linked to the continuation, not to the focus function, meaning that A can be different for each modification. Which is of course exactly what we wanted!

function focus<S>(
  x: S,
  modification1: GetMod<S>,
  modification2: GetMod<S>, 
) {
  const continuation1 = <A>(op: GetModOps<S, A>) => iassign(x, op.get, op.modify);
  const acc1 = modification1(continuation1);
  const continuation2 = <A>(op: GetModOps<S, A>) => iassign(acc1, op.get, op.modify);
  return modification2(continuation2);

A GetMod is created by passing the get and modify functions as a record to the received continuation. I called this over for a slightly more memorable syntax, the name is inspired by its namesake of the Haskell lens library.

function over<S, A>(
  get: (s: S) => A,
  modify: (a: A) => A,
): GetMod<S> {
  return e => e({ get, modify });

Using over, we can tansform our object as advertised at the start of the post.

const transformedX = focus(
  { a: { b: 1, c: "a" } },
  over(x => x.a.b, x => x + 1),
  over(x => x.a.c, x => x + "a"),
// transformedX = { a: { b: 2, c: "aa" } }

We can easily generalize the focus function with reduce so it takes any number of GetMods.

function focus<S>(
  s: S,
  ...mods: GetMod<S>[]
): S {
  return mods.reduce((acc, mod) => mod(op => iassign(acc, op.get, op.modify)), s);


In this post we covered the use of existential types encoding to create a wrapper for the immutable-assign library. We took a closer look at the use of this encoding with an analogy to continuation passing style.