The Rise of Type Theory

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After three dreary posts on syntax, let’s change the pace and pursue an entirely different, deeper and more fun topic!

In our community’s #theory channel on Discord, someone asked: “Is there a basis for some of the mathematics related to type theory and its relationship to its usage in programming languages?” This triggered a spirited dialogue about the historical antecedents of type theory, how type theory evolved from that, and the interplay between programming languages and type theory.

My dim memory was that this process unfolded like a bubbling stew between mathematicians and computer science practitioners, colleagues throwing flavors back and forth, exploring different ways to formalize interrelated concepts. Very little of it proceeded in a straight line, and sometimes it more closely resembled a drunken walk. To confirm this memory, I scavenged through Wikipedia and assembled a ordered, dated list of some seminal events from the 20th and 21st centuries.

This post expands on that list with additional contextual commentary and links to relevant pages that go into considerably more depth. I freely acknowledge that my treatment here is woefully incomplete and simplistic, and always welcome suggestions. Nonetheless, I hope others find this history as intriguing and inspiring as I do.

The Murder of Hilbert’s Program

In the early 20th century, prior to World War II, seminal advances to Mathematics unfolded, whose core concepts still play a dominant role in type theory…

1900 Hilbert’s problems. David Hilbert challenges mathematicians with 23 problems to solve. Following Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell, Hilbert sought to define mathematics logically using the method of formal systems.

1901 Russell’s paradox. Russell demonstrates that Frege’s axiom of unrestricted comprehension (as applied to Georg Cantor’s set theory) can lead to contradiction. If R is the set of all sets that are not members of themselves, R can neither be a member of itself, nor can it not.

1908 Russell’s theory of types. One solution to the paradox is to create a hierarchy of types, such that types can only be built from types lower in the hierarchy.

1910-13 Principia Mathematica (Whitehead and Russell). Among its ambitious aims: precisely express mathematical propositions in symbolic logic using the most convenient notation. Enormously influential, it showcased the power of symbolic logic applied to mathematics.

1920 Hilbert’s Program. This challenge sought a formal, finitistic proof of the consistency of the axioms of arithmetic. This is an outgrowth of Hilbert’s second problem.

1925 On the principle of the excluded middle (Kolmogorov). showing that formal logic statements can be formulated using intuitionistic logic. Along with independent work by Brouwer and then Heyting, this is now known as the Brower-Heyting-Kolmogorov Interpretation, a cornerstone principle of intuitionistic type theory.

1928 Entscheidungsproblem (Hilbert and Ackermann). An outgrowth of Hilbert’s program, this decision problem challenge looks for an algorithm that considers, as input, a statement and answers “Yes” or “No” according to whether the statement is universally valid

1931 Gödel’s Incompleteness Proof. Kurt Gödel proves that any consistent formal system supporting elementary arithmetic is incomplete: some statements in this system can neither be proved nor disproved. Further, such a system could not prove its own consistency; it cannot prove the consistency of anything stronger with certainty. This result was cataclysmic, resulting in the doom of Hilbert’s program.

1932 Symbolic Logic (Lewis). This introduced five systems of modal logic to predicate calculus, qualifying the truthfulness of a proposition by some notion of possibility or necessity.

1934 Combinatory Logic (Curry). Haskell Curry observes that the types of the combinators (building on earlier work by Schönfinkel dating from 1924) could be seen as axiom-schemes for intuitionistic implicational logic.

1935 Natural Deduction and Sequent Calculus (Gentzen). These equivalent systems substantially improved the notation and structure of proofs. They proposed ∀ for universal quantification, introduced normalization, and showed that proof rules come in pairs (introduction and elimination). Even though sequent calculus was invented to introduce cut elimination to natural deduction, both systems thrive.

1936 Church-Turing Thesis. Alonzo Church and Alan Turing independently reproduce Gödel’s result using their own formalisms. Church, inventing lambda calculus four years earlier, proves that Hilbert’s Entscheidungsproblem is unsolvable. Turing’s theorem, based on the Turing Machine, shows that there is no algorithm to solve the halting problem. Turing shows both results are equivalent.

1940 Simply Typed Lambda Calculus (Church). To avoid paradoxical uses, Church adds types to his untyped lambda calculus, much as Russell used a hierarchy of types to resolve set paradoxes.

1942-5 Early Category Theory (Ellenberg and McLane). Their work extended algebraic topology with categories, functors, etc. Much later, this work was incorporated into type theory.

Despite the dramatic failure of Hilbert’s program, the notational and procedural advances made to formal logic and reasoning were immensely valuable and are still relevant. No less valuable was learning from Gödel that there are inscrutable limits to how much we can expect to accomplish with formal logic. We preserve this tradition when we pass nightmares on to those students we caution about the danger of Turing-complete programming languages (and Conway’s Game of Life)! Let’s return to this topic in a future post.

Programming Languages and Types

Eniac, the first general-purpose general computer, arrived in 1945. After that, the proliferation of computers was explosive. Given the tediousness of programming these computers in binary code, it did not take long before the necessity of high-level programming languages became widely recognized.

In the list below, I show the introduction of some notable programming languages. Importantly, I also show how they varied in the datatypes they supported, as types are inseparable from programming languages. Working with these languages provided an invaluable laboratory for exploring the universe of practical types. Importantly, many of the inventors of these programming languages were either mathematicians or trained by them. The inventors also collaborated and learned from each other.

1942-5 Plankalkül (Zuse). First high-level programming language to be designed for a computer.

1947 Curry describes an early high-level programming language.

1956 Fortran (Backus). This started with support for numbers, but later versions added many data types, including array, complex numbers, and logical (1961).

1957 Temporal Logic (Prior). This adds invaluable qualifiers to modal logic to express concepts like always, eventually, and the sequential order of states.

1958 Lisp (McCarthy). This lambda calculus-influenced dynamic-typed language offered support for numbers, symbols and heterogeneous lists. In this, it improved on IPL (Newell and Simon).

1958 Algol-58 (team). This highly influential language started with numbers and arrays (supporting upper and lower subscript bounds), and was the first to introduce code blocks and nested function definitions with lexical scope. It was followed later by the more influential Algol-60 (which introduced call-by-name and Backus-Naur form) and Algol-68.

1958 System T (Gödel). His motivation was to obtain a relative consistency proof for Heyting arithmetic (and hence for Peano arithmetic). It was later used to build a model of Girard’s refinement of intuitionistic logic known as linear logic. Pure math work continues and Gödel continues to deliver.

1958 Combinatory Logic (Curry). This book observes that Hilbert-style deduction systems (proofs) coincide to the typed fragment of combinatory logic (computations). A decade later, Howard rediscovers and elaborates on this important correspondence.

1959 Kripke Semantics (Kripke). These considerably enriched the useful formalisms of modal logic.

1959 Cobol (Hopper). Introduced records, along with other familiar datatypes.

1962-7 Simula (Dahl and Nygaard). The progenitor of object-oriented languages introduced classes, inheritance, etc.

1964 Basic (Kemeny and Kurtz). A novice-friendly language supporting numbers, matrices and strings.

1966 APL (Iverson). Array programming language with an unusual collection of succinct operators.

From Type Algebra to the Lambda Cube

The switch in sections reflects no pace change in the introduction of influential languages and their type systems. It is sparked by the explosively catalytic re-realization of the deep connection between natural deduction (proof systems) and intuitionistic (calculation) systems and, later, typed lambda calculus. The exciting implications of this result led to a rapidly deepening formalization of type theory as a robust, distinct academic discipline. Increasingly, we see insights flow back-and-forth not only between type theory and programming languages (and theorem provers), but also between type theory and related branches of mathematics, such as category theory, topology, and abstract algebra.

1969 Curry-Howard Correspondence. Howard’s notes highlight the tight correspondence between the natural deduction connectives &, ∨, ⊃ and the intuitionistic, computational types ×, +, → (product, sum, and lamba types), as well as demonstrating the correspondence of cut elimination to normalization. It goes on to propose new types that correspond to the predicate quantifiers ∀ and ∃, now called dependent types. Although not published until 1980, this was known by and influenced the work of Martin-Löf, Girard, Coquand, and others. Wadler’s paper Propositions as Types offers an invaluable summary of the historical context and impact of Howard’s insight.

1969 Hoare Logic. A formal system for reasoning rigorously about the correctness of programs.

1971-79 Intuitionistic Type Theory (Martin-Löf). Building off the BHK Interpretation and inspired by the Curry-Howard Correspondence, this establishes an intuitionistic (vs. classical) system for type theory. It derives its power from just three types (0, 1, 2) and five constructors (Σ, Π, =, inductive, and universes), making possible dependent type judgments.

1972 C (Ritchie). This systems language supported pointers, struct, union, ,and array datatypes. It took nearly three decades to formalize a logic around the safe use of pointers.

1972-4 System F (Girard and Reynolds) adds universal quantification (polymorphism) to typed lambda calculus. Intriguingly, this makes type inference undecidable.

1973 ML language (Milner). ML is the progenitor of type theory-based programming languages. Its types closely mirror those of type theory and its ongoing improvements helped influence the evolution of type theory and the LCF theorem prover. Among its initial innovations were the Hindley-Milner type system, pattern matching, first-class functions, sum types, and product type tuples. Data types were later broadened to parameterized types (1978) and ref types (1980).

1974 CLU (Liskov). This language was first to introduce parameterized types with constraints (generics) and abstract data types. It also featured variant types, classes, iterators, exception handling, and more.

1975 Scheme (Steele and Sussman). This Lisp dialect strengthed the recursive nature of functional programming with tall-call optimization. It also introduced first-class continuations, later tied back using type theory to Pierce’s law in classical logic.

1978 Communicating Sequential Processes (Hoare), a formal language for describing patterns of interaction in concurrent systems.

1980 Calculus of Communicating Systems (Milner), which models indivisible communications between two participants. This was later expanded to become π-calculus. Session types for channels/protocols arise from process calculi.

1980 Smalltalk (Kay). Inspired by Simula, this dynamically-typed, object-oriented language facilitated Xerox Parc’s innovations that fundamentally transformed how we interact with computers. Its message passing architecture helped inspire the actor model, which went on to influence π-calculus.

1983+ Standard ML. This improved dialect added MacQueen’s lauded module system (structures, signatures and functors), as well as labelled records and unions.

1985 C++ (Stroustrup). Initially, a C dialect that added rich object-oriented abstractions.

1985 Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs (Abelson and Sussman) This influential textbook used Scheme to teach about fundamental principles of recursion, abstraction, state, modularity, and programming language design and implementation.

1986 Erlang (Armstrong). A general-purpose, concurrent, functional programming language which supports distributed, high-availability applications using immutable, garbage-collected data and message-passing processes (actors).

1987 Linear Logic (Girard). This logic applies structural rules (e.g., contraction and weakening) so that logical deduction can reason about resources within the logic itself, restricting their duplication or disposal. Its potential for deterministic resource management was heavily boosted in Wadler’s papers (e.g., Linear Types can change the world).

1987 Behavioral Subtyping (Liskov). Influenced by Hoare Logic and inspired by object-oriented languages, this logic formalizes the semantic interoperability of types in a hierarchy.

1988 Effect Systems (Lucassen and Gifford). Proposes the use of annotations that support a compile-time check of the computational side-effects of a program.

1989 Calculus of Constructions (Coquand). Yet another formal system of type theory based on higher-order typed lambda calculus. It forms the basis behind the Coq interactive theorem prover.

1990 Definition of SML (Milner, Tofte, Harper). The first formal specification of a widely-used language, presented in terms of its grammar, typing rules and operational semantics.

1990 Haskell (Wadler) A general-purpose, statically typed, purely functional programming language with type inference, lazy evaluation, and ad hoc polymorphism (type classes). Haskell made monads, used for managing side effects in a pure way, famous.

1991 Lambda Cube (Berendregt). This cube organized various lambda systems along three axes, corresponding to the binding between types and terms: polymorphism (terms bind types), dependent types (types bind terms), and type operators (types bind types).

1991 Refinement Types (Freemand and Pfenning). A predicate-based extension of behavioral subtyping for preconditions and postconditions.

1994 System F< (Cardelli). This expands System F lambda calculus with subtyping for parametric polymorphism and record subtyping.

At this point, much of the core foundation for type theory has been poured. Type theory is revealed to be not a singular theory, but a diverse and inclusive family comprised of many formal systems, including not only several flavors of lambda cube systems (classical and intuitionistic), but also process calculi, subtyping, linear logic, modal/temporal logic, effect systems, and separation logic (future).

Going Mainstream

When history gets recent, it becomes harder to discern what milestones represent far-reaching influence. That said, let’s highlight several events that not only demonstrate further development of type theory and unique application of type systems to programming languages and proof systems, but also mention influential resources that broaden awareness of these rich and powerful tools.

1997 Region-Based Memory Management (Tofte and Talpin). This work, implemented using a dialect of ML called MLkit, demonstrated new static-based inference and analysis techniques for rapidly allocating objects in arena-based regions that outlive their static scope.

1999 ATS (Xi). This unifies programming with formal specification, combining compile-time theorem proving with advanced type systems (including dependent and linear types).

2000 Separation Logic (Reynolds et al). This work formalized local reasoning about safe reference-based use of shared, mutable memory areas, facilitating information hiding, transfer of ownership, and virtual separation between concurrent modules. This logic can help verify programming languages that offer versatile reference-based memory and data race safety mechanisms.

2002 Types and Programming Languages (Pierce). This highly-recommended textbook provides a comprehensive introduction to type systems and the basic theory of programming languages. It covers simple types, subtyping, recursive types, polymorphism, and higher-order systems.

2006 Homotopy Type Theory (Voevodsky et al). This promising technique links topology to type theory, using paths to explore deeper notions of equivalence.

2006 Cyclone (Grossman et al). This research project built a safe C dialect that used higher-order types, linear logic, and region polymorphism to statically remove many safety holes in C.

2007 Idris (Brady) A Haskell-like purely functional, lazy programming language that supports dependent types and can be used as a proof assistant.

2007 Agda (Norell & Coquand). This is a dependently typed functional programming language that can also be used as a proof assistant, where proofs are written in a functional programming style.

2010 Rust (Hoare et al) An increasingly popular and safe systems language that heavily leverages affine logic (a variant of linear logic), lifetimes, and fearless concurrency.

2012 Practical Foundations for Programming Languages (Harper). Another highly-recommended textbook that not only deeply covers type systems, but also dynamics, classes and inheritance, control flow, mutable state, parallelism/concurrency, and modularity.

2015 Pony (Clebsch). This actor-based programming language offers a unique collection of object and reference capabilities and a lockless design to offer proven safety guarantees.

2020 Granule. A functional programming language based on the linear λ-calculus augmented with graded modal types, inspired by the coeffect-effect calculus of Gaboardi et al..

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About Jonathan Goodwin
3D web evangelist. Author of the Cone & Acorn programming languages.