Python's Type theory
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1 Context

1.1 Opening remarks

Python added support for type hints in the typing module in Python version 3.5. Use this for:

  • adding type hints (think of these as a very powerful form of adding comments to your code).
  • static typechecking (by an external tool like mypy).
  • typechecking within an IDE (many editors and IDEs do this on the fly).
  • a sanity check (to ensure that the code you are writing makes sense even without running it).

Two key points to remember:

  • type hints are an optional feature of python. So, it is not necessary that we add type hints to every single line of code.
  • type hints are ignored during runtime and do not affect performance of the code.

Using type hints is optional. But I have found it to be an extremely useful feature. I frequently find myself wishing for more features in the typing module – not less.

These are just my notes on Python's type thoery. Do not use it as a fool-proof reference. For proper documentation, one can refer to typing module docs or PEP 483]].

1.2 Types vs Types

There are two meanings for types in python now. One is the type of an object that is returned by calling the in-built type() function. The other is the type inferred by an external typechecker like mypy, and which can be displayed using the reveal_type function and then running the script through mypy.

We will always refer to the second interpretation when we refer to the type of an object in these notes.

1.3 So, what is type theory?

Think of it as the math/rules that govern these types. A basic fact to understand is that every python object has a type, whether we specify it explicitly or not.

2 Types that are built-in in python

Python comes with some buil-in types.

a: int   = 1
b: float = 1.0
c: str   = 'one'
d: bool  = True
e: None  = None

In addition, for every class that we define, we can refer to the type of its instances using the name of the class itself.

class MyClass:
m: MyClass = MyClass()

2.1 Subtypes and NewType

So far, we have talked about types without specifically defining what a type is. We will continue to not define them. However, we will say that one way to think about a type is simply as a set of values (sometimes these values are called terms, or even instances). So, bool can be thought of as the set {True, False}, and int can be thought of as {1, 2, 3, ...}, and so on.

This analogy is also handy when trying to understand Subtypes. A type A is a subtype of a type B if the set of values corresponding to A is a subset of the set of values corresponding to B. This is often written (in type-theory texts, but not in python itself) as A <: B.

For example, int <: float. In other words, every int is also a float. It may come as a surprise to some python users that in python, the following is also true: bool <: int. This is because bool inherits from int and False, True are just aliases of 0 and 1 respectively.

The typing library lets us define subtypes using the NewType function as follows:

# define a new type
PositiveInt = NewType('PositiveInt', int)  # This is the same as declaring PositiveInt <: int

# define a constructor function for the new type
def make_positive_int(a: int) -> PositiveInt:
    if a > 0:
        return PositiveInt(a)
    raise ValueError, 'arg was not positive.'

2.2 Why use NewType?

NewType offers a way to restrict the type of argument supplied to a function. Looking at the example above, we can see that PositiveInt is a subtype of int. This means that a function that accepts an int argument will also accept an argument of type PositiveInt without any hiccups. However, a function that accepts PositiveInt as an argument will not accept any run-of-the-mill int as its input (here, by "would not accept" we mean that such an argument will not pass through the typechecker without an error).

Our constructor function make_positive_int ensures that the only way to create a PositiveInt is to pass it through this function.

This subtype and its constructor can then be used to create safer functions that only accept the restricted type. For example, we can have:

# define a new type
from math import log

def safe_logarithm(p: PositiveInt) -> float:
    return math.log(p)

safe_log(-5)  # Fails in typechecking as well as in runtime
safe_log(5)   # Fails in typechecking only. Computes correctly at runtime.

safe_log(make_positive_int(-5))  # Passes typecking. Raises ValueError and meaningful error message at runtime.
safe_log(make_positive_int(5))   # Passes typechecking. Computes correctly at runtime.

2.3 Type coercion

Type coercion refers to the process by which the typechecker changes the type of some of the variables to match function call signatures.

a: int   = 2
b: float = 3.0
c = a + b

In the above code example, if we ask the typechecker for the type of c, then it will correctly guess that c is a float. How did it reach that conclusion? The answer is that the + operator is overloaded (details on how to write overloaded functions are given in a later section). Since one of the arguments is a float, python coerces a from an int into a float and then computes the sum of two float's (which is also obviously a float).

In general, typecheckers coerce type A into type B (if required) whenever they know that A is a subtype of B.

3 Importing more Types

By importing from typing, we get access to some more types.

3.1 Basic data-structures

from typing import (Any, Dict, FrozenSet, List, Set, Tuple)

a:  List[int]      = [1, 2]
b:  List[str]      = ['one', 'two']
c:  Dict[int, str] = {1: 'a', 2: 'b'}
d:  Set[str]       = {'a', 'b', 'c'}
e:  FrozenSet[str] = frozenset({'a', 'b', 'c'})

f1: Tuple[str]           = ('a',)
f2: Tuple[str, str]      = ('a', 'b')
f3: Tuple[str, str, str] = ('a', 'b', 'c')
f4: Tuple[str, ...]      = ('a', 'b', 'c')

g1: Any       = 1
g2: Any       = {'a', 'b'}
g3: Any       = {1 : 'a', 2 : 'b'}
g4: List[Any] = [1, 2, 'a', 'b']

3.2 Understanding Any

Any is a sort of magic type. I like to think of Any as the type-theoretic counterpart of object in python's class hierarchy.

Every object in python belongs to a class. And every class inherits methods from other classes. But what happens when we define a base class (a class that doesn't inherit from other classes)? Even in that case, python defaults to inheriting from a class called object. Any is similar. Every type is a subtype of Any, just as every class inherits from object. (I will have more to say about subtypes in the later sections).

Any is the precise reason why type hints are optional in python. When the type-checker can't figure out the type of a variable on its own (and when no type hints are provided by the user), python simply defaults to usign Any as the variable's type.

3.3 Optional and Union

Union represents what in type-theory jargon are called sum-types.

One freqently needs the union of a given type with None. Python's typing module therefore comes with the handy Optional type-constructor. The following code block illustrates the use of both of these.

from typing import List, Optional, Union

a: List[Union[int, str]] = [1, 2, 'a', 3, 'b']

def unsafe_division(a: int, b: int) -> Union[float, Exception]:
   """Divide in an unsafe manner."""
   if not b:
       raise ValueError, 'Field axioms do not allow this.'
   return a/b

def optional_division(a: int, b: int) -> Optional[float]:
   """Return quotient is b is nonzero, else return None."""
   return a/b if b else None

Note that one might want to use either the unsafe or the optional variant of division (depending on the context). Each approach has its own way of handling the exceptional case. The advantage of using type hints is that we get a good idea of how the function behaves just by looking at the call signature of the function!

Side note: Exception is an in-built class in python. Almost all exceptions and errors are inherited from the base class Exception. (The ones that aren't are inherited from BaseException).

3.4 The cast function

This is a function that lets you do two things:

  • with cast, you can resolve ambiguities in the type (in case the typechecker needs some help).
  • you can cheat the typechecker.
from typing import cast, Union

def madeup_example(a: Union[int, str]) -> int:
    if hasattr(a, 'split'):
        # must be a string
        a_str = cast(str, a)
        return ord(a_str[0])
    # must be an integer
    a_int = cast(int, a)
    return a_int + 1


4 TODO Function types

4.1 Call signatures for functions

4.2 Callable

4.3 Map, reduce, filter

4.4 Polymosphism via single-dispatch a.k.a. overloaded functions

5 TODO Other special types

5.1 Literal

5.2 Final

5.3 NamedTuple

5.4 Counter

5.5 IO

6 TODO Type classes

6.1 Iterator

6.2 Sized

6.3 Generator

6.4 Iterable

6.5 Collection

6.6 AbstractSet

7 TODO Generic Types

7.1 Covariant and contravariant types

Author: Vaibhav Karve

Created: 2021-04-08 Thu 10:49