Lambda expressions have proven so useful that even Java and C++ support them nowadays. But how do we compile them for a machine to run? No CPU has a lambda instruction.
One strategy is to convert lambda terms into point-free code, a process known as bracket abstraction. One such algorithm rewrites any program in terms of two functions: the S and K combinators. We can build a compiler by assembling just two simple functions.
Unfortunately, even with extra rewrite rules, classic bracket abstraction yields monstrous unwieldy expressions. Decades ago, they worked around this problem by building custom combinators tailored for each input program, known as supercombinators. Compilation is trickier, but at least the output is reasonable.
But recently, Oleg Kiselyov found a time-linear and space-linear bracket abstraction algorithm provided the De Bruijn indices of the input term are encoded in unary. It only takes 20 lines:
data Deb = Zero | Succ Deb | Lam Deb | App Deb Deb deriving Show infixl 5 :# data Com = Com :# Com | S | I | C | K | B | Sn Int | Bn Int | Cn Int ski :: Deb -> (Int, Com) ski deb = case deb of Zero -> (1, I) Succ d | x@(n, _) <- ski d -> (n + 1, f (0, K) x) App d1 d2 | x@(a, _) <- ski d1 , y@(b, _) <- ski d2 -> (max a b, f x y) Lam d | (n, e) <- ski d -> case n of 0 -> (0, K :# e) _ -> (n - 1, e) where f (a, x) (b, y) = case (a, b) of (0, 0) -> x :# y (0, n) -> Bn n :# x :# y (n, 0) -> Cn n :# x :# y (n, m) | n == m -> Sn n :# x :# y | n < m -> Bn (m - n) :# (Sn n :# x) :# y | otherwise -> Cn (n - m) :# (Bn (n - m) :# Sn m :# x) :# y
Our ski function returns an integer and a combinatory logic term equivalent to the input lambda term. The integer is zero if the given lambda term is closed; for an open term, it’s the number of lambdas needed to close it.
It uses bulk variants of the B, C, and S combinators:
linBulk :: Com -> Com linBulk b = case b of Bn n -> iterate ((B:# B):#) B !! (n - 1) Cn n -> iterate ((B:#(B:#C):#B):#) C !! (n - 1) Sn n -> iterate ((B:#(B:#S):#B):#) S !! (n - 1) x :# y -> linBulk x :# linBulk y _ -> b
Linear complexity depends on memoizing these bulk combinators. If memoization is undesirable, we can replace each bulk combinator of order n with O(log n) ordinary combinators.
logBulk :: Com -> Com logBulk b = case b of Bn n -> go n (K:#I) :# B :# I Cn n -> go n (K:#(C:#I:#I)) :# (B:#(B:#C):#B) :# I Sn n -> go n (K:#(C:#I:#I)) :# (B:#(B:#S):#B) :# I x :# y -> logBulk x :# logBulk y _ -> b where go n base = foldr (:#) base $ ([b0, b1]!!) <$> bits  n bits acc 0 = reverse acc bits acc n | (q, r) <- divMod n 2 = bits (r:acc) q b0 = C:#B:#(S:#B:#I) b1 = C:#(B:#S:#(B:#(B:#B):#(C:#B:#(S:#B:#I)))):#B
λ print $ logBulk $ Sn 1234 CB(SBI)(C(BS(B(BB)(CB(SBI))))B(CB(SBI)(CB(SBI)(C(BS(B(BB)(CB (SBI))))B(CB(SBI)(C(BS(B(BB)(CB(SBI))))B(C(BS(B(BB)(CB(SBI)) ))B(CB(SBI)(CB(SBI)(C(BS(B(BB)(CB(SBI))))B(K(CII)))))))))))) (B(BS)B)I λ print $ logBulk $ Bn 1234 CB(SBI)(C(BS(B(BB)(CB(SBI))))B(CB(SBI)(CB(SBI)(C(BS(B(BB)(CB (SBI))))B(CB(SBI)(C(BS(B(BB)(CB(SBI))))B(C(BS(B(BB)(CB(SBI)) ))B(CB(SBI)(CB(SBI)(C(BS(B(BB)(CB(SBI))))B(KI)))))))))))BI
For completeness, we include our pretty-printing code:
instance Show Com where show S = "S" show I = "I" show C = "C" show K = "K" show B = "B" show (l :# r@(_ :# _)) = show l ++ "(" ++ show r ++ ")" show (l :# r) = show l ++ show r show (Bn n) = "B_" ++ show n show (Cn n) = "C_" ++ show n show (Sn n) = "S_" ++ show n
In other words, we can easily rewrite a lambda term of length N as a combinatory logic term of length O(N log N).
Edward Kmett outlines a different approach (about 21 minutes into the video) though the details are so "horrific" that even he has yet to work through them. By the way, the slides from this talk are packed with excellent references on combinators.
Kiselyov laments bracket abstraction has "many descriptions and explanations and blogs", all of which take a syntactic approach. I’m one of the guilty parties, and hope to redeem myself with this post. Also, I rewrote one of my toy compilers to demonstrate another algorithm from Kiselyov’s paper. Though not linear, the algorithm avoids bulk combinators and often produces short and sweet programs.