Headline

A data type for holding the ingredients of a fold

Illustration

Consider the (right-associative) fold function as a point of departure:

-- Recalling the foldr combinator
foldr :: (a -> b -> b) -> b -> [a] -> b
foldr f z [] = z
foldr f z (x:xs) = f x (foldr f z xs)

Informally, the first two arguments are designed to essentially replace occurrences of the two possible constructors for lists. Even their types follow the types of the constructors, except that the list type has been replaced by a type parameter b in order to be parametric in the result type of the fold. We can also group the first two arguments in an algebra as follows:

-- The fold algebra for lists
data ListAlg a b
   = ListAlg {
       nil :: b,
       cons :: a -> b -> b
     }

For comparison, we also show an explicit declaration of lists so that the correspondence between algebra and data type becomes strikingly clear:

-- An explicit declaration of lists
data List a = Nil | Cons a (List a)

Suppose we would have invoked the normal fold for summation as follows:

> foldr (+) 0 [1,2,3]
6

We can factor the arguments of such a fold as follows:

-- A fold algebra for summation
sumAlg :: Num a => ListAlg a a
sumAlg = ListAlg { nil = 0, cons = (+) }

It remains to actually define a fold function that processes fold algebras:

-- The algebraic list fold
foldList :: ListAlg a b -> [a] -> b
foldList alg [] = nil alg
foldList alg (x:xs) = cons alg x (foldList alg xs)

Thus, we can again sum up elements in a list as follows:

> foldList sumAlg [1,2,3]
6

The concept of fold algebra generalizes for (almost) arbitrary algebraic data types. Here is a development for simple arithmetic expressions where we implement the evaluation function by means of a fold:

-- A datatype for expression forms
data Expr = Literal Int 
          | Add Expr Expr
  deriving (Eq, Show, Read)

-- The fold algebra for expressions
data ExprAlg a
   = ExprAlg {
       literal :: Int -> a,
       add :: a -> a -> a
     }

-- Folds over expressions
foldExpr :: ExprAlg a -> Expr -> a
foldExpr alg (Literal i) = literal alg i
foldExpr alg (Add x y)
  = add alg (foldExpr alg x) (foldExpr alg y)

-- A fold algebra for evaluation
evalAlg :: ExprAlg Int
evalAlg = ExprAlg {
    literal = id,
    add = (+) 
  }

Thus, expression evaluation is available as follows:

> foldExpr evalAlg (Add (Add (Literal 20) (Literal 2)) (Literal 20))
42

Fold algebras are convenient for a number of reasons. First, recursion is captured, once and for all, by the fold function; the problem-specific parts in the fold algebra do not need to express recursion. Second, fold algebras, once they are first-class citizens, can be reused and adapted via record update; see Contribution:tabaluga.

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