IntroductionThe Three Projections of Futamura are a sequence of applications of a programming technique called 'partial evaluation' or 'specialisation', each one more mind-bending than the previous one. But it shouldn't be programmers who have all the fun. So I'm going to try to explain the three projections in a way that non-programmers can maybe understand too. But whether you're a programmer or not, this kind of self-referential reasoning can hurt your brain. At least it hurts mine. But it's a good pain, right?
So rather than talk about computer programs, I'll talk about machines of the mechanical variety. A bit like computer programs, these machines will have some kind of slot for inputting stuff, and some kind of slot where output will come out. But unlike computer programs, I'll be able to draw pictures of them to show what I'm talking about. I'll also assume these machines have access to an infinite supply of raw materials for manufacturing purposes and I'll also assume that these machines can replicate stuff - because in a computer we can freely make copies of data, until we run out of memory at least.
Minting coinsA really simple example of a machine is one that has a slot for inputting blanks, and outputs newly minted coins:
That's a dedicated $1 manufacturing machine. We could imagine that internally it stamps the appropriate design onto the blank and spits out the result.
It'd be more interesting if we could make a machine with another input slot that allowed us to input the description of the coin. By providing different inputs we could mint a variety of different coins with one machine. I'm going to adopt the convention that when we want to input a description we input a picture of the result we want. I'll draw pictures as rectangles with the subject inside them. Here's a general purpose machine manufacturing pound coins:
The same machine could make dollars, zlotys or yen. You could imagine this machine works by taking the description and then milling the coin CNC style. We call such a machine an interpreter. It interprets the instructions and produces its result.
The interpreter has a great advantage over the dedicated dollar mint. You make make any kind of coin. But it's going to run a lot slower. The dedicated minter can just stamp a coin in one go. The interpreter can't do this because every input might be different. It has to custom mill each coin individually. Is there a way to get the benefits of both types of machine? We could do this: take the coin description and instead of milling the coin directly we mill negative reliefs for both sides of the coin. We then build a new dedicated minting machine that uses these negatives to stamp out the coin. In other words we could make a machine that takes as input a coin description and outputs a dedicated machine to make that type of coin. This kind of machine making machine is called a compiler. It takes a set of instructions, but instead of executing them one by one, it makes a dedicated machine to perform them. Here's one in action:
So here are the two important concepts so far:
Interpreters: these take descriptions or instructions and use them to make the thing described.
Compilers: these take descriptions or instructions and use them to make a machine dedicated to making the thing described. The process of making such a machine from a set of instructions is known as compiling.
The Projections of Doctor Futamura help make clear the relationship between these kinds of things.
SpecialisationWe need one more important concept: the specialiser. Suppose we have a machine that has two inputs slots, A and B. But now suppose that when we use the machine we find that we vary the kind of thing we put into slot B, but always end up putting the same thing into slot A. If we know that slot A will always get the same input then we could streamline the machine using our knowledge of the properties of A. This is similar to the minting situation - if we know we're always going to make $1 coins then we can dedicate our machine to that purpose. In fact, if we know that we're always going to input the same thing into slot A we don't even need slot A any more. We could just stick an A inside the machine and whenever the user inputs something to slot B, the machine would then replicate the A and then use it just as if it had been input.
In summary, given a machine with two slots A and B, and given some input suitable for slot A, we could redesign it as a machine with just a B slot that automatically, internally self-feeds the chosen item to A. But we can often do better than this. We don't need to self-feed stuff to slot A. We might be able to redesign the way the machine works based on the assumption that we always get the same stuff going into slot A. For example, in the minting example a dedicate $1 minter was more specialised than just a general purpose minter that interpreted the instructions for making a $1 coin. This process of customising a machine for a particular input to slot A is called specialisation or partial evaluation.
Now imagine we have a machine for automatically specialising designs for machines. It might have two slots: one for inputting a description for a two slot machine with slots A and B, and one for inputting stuff suitable for slot A. It would then print out a description for a customised machine with just a slot B. We could call it a specialisation machine. Here is one at work:
It's converting a description of a two input machine into a description of a one input machine.
The First ProjectionThe process of specialisation is similar to what I was talking about with dedicated minting machines. Rather than just have a similarity we can completely formalise this. Note that the interpreter above takes two inputs. So the design for an interpreter could be fed into the first input of a specialiser. Now we feed a description the coin we want into slot B. The specialiser whirrs away and eventually outputs a description of a machine that is an interpreter that is dedicated to making that one particular coin. The result will describe a machine with only one input suitable for blanks. In other words, we can use a specialiser as a compiler. This is the first of Doctor Futamura's Projections. Here's a picture of the process at work:
What this shows is that you don't need to make compilers. You can make specialisers instead. This is actually a very practical thing to do in the computing world. For example there are commercial products (I'm not connected with that product in any way) that can specialise code to run on a specific architecture like CUDA. It's entirely practical to convert an interpreter to a compiler with such a tool. By writing a specialiser, the purveyors of such tools allow third parties to develop their own compilers and so this is more useful than just writing a dedicated compiler.
The Second Projection
Time to kick it up a notch. The first input to the specialiser is a description of a two input machine. But the specialiser is itself a two input machine. Are you thinking what I'm thinking yet? We could stuff a description of a specialiser into the specialiser's own first input! In the first projection we provided an interpreter as input to the specialiser. If we know we're always going to want to use the same interpreter then we could streamline the specialiser to work specifically with this input. So we can specialise the specialiser to work with our interpreter like this:
But what is that machine whose description it has output? An interpreter takes as input a description of how to operate on some stuff, like turning blanks into coins. In effect, the output machine has the interpreter built into it. So it takes descriptions and outputs a machine for performing those instructions. In other words it's a compiler. If the specialiser is any good then the compiler will be good too. It won't just hide an interpreter in a box and feed it your description, it will make dedicated parts to ensure your compiler produces a fast dedicated machine. And that is Doctor Futamura's Second Projection.
The Third ProjectionBut we can go further. The specialiser can accept a description of a specialiser as its first input. That means we can specialise it specifically for this input. And to do that, we use a specialiser. In other words we can feed a descrption of a specialiser into both inputs of the specialiser! Here we go:
But what is the X machine that it outputs? In the second projection we pass in an interpreter as the second argument and get back a compiler. So the third projection gives us a dedicated machine for this task. The X machine accepts the description of an interpreter as input and outputs the description of a compiler. So the X machine is a dedicated interpreter-to-compiler converter. And that is the Third Projection of Doctor Futamura.
If we have a specialiser we never need to make a compiler again. We need only design interpreters that we can automatically convert to compilers. In general it's easier to write interpreters than compilers and so in principle this makes life easier for programmers. It also allows us to compartmentalise the building of compilers. We can separate the interpreter bit from the bit that fashions specific parts for a task. The specialiser does the latter so our would-be compiler writer can concentrate on the former. But who would have guessed that passing a specialiser to itself twice would give us something so useful?
SummarySo here are the projections:
- Compiling specific programs to dedicated machines.
- Making a dedicated machine for compilation from an interpreter.
- Making a machine dedicated to the task of converting interpreters into compilers.