New Programming Language Idea

Hi all,

I'm new to this forum, but it seemed like there are a lotta smart people here, so I wanted to throw an idea out there and see what the 1337 hax0rz think about it. (btw, I'm also not a programming languages guy, so please correct me if I'm wrong)

The Problem:
So there are a lot of programming languages out there, but pretty much all of them are about programming a process, rather than programming an algorithm. Consider the following program:

#include "myCards.h"

int main(void)
myCards cards;
return 0;

This is usually a clear way of writing a program, any programmer that looks at the code can deduce the algorithm, namely, create the cards, shuffle them, then deal them. However, this C++ code is actually programming a very specific process and not necessarily the algorithm that it seems to imply. In actuality, you know very little about this code. All we can deduce from this code is that an object was created, and two of its member functions were called in succession. It could be the code that sets up and detonates a bomb, or the code to break eggs and fry them sunny-side up. It depends completely on how myCards.h is defined, and the algorithmic information is buried within the complex relationships.

It is no wonder that understanding someone else's code can be as time-consuming as rewriting the code from scratch. Code without comments is tantamount to writing unusable code.

The Idea
When you are playing cards, you will use this algorithm. Get the cards, shuffle them, then deal the cards. The algorithm is very consistent and reusable - you do the same thing whether you're getting ready to play blackjack, poker, or even go-fish even though those games are very different. So the idea is to create a programming language where you can program the algorithm, and capture everything that is important to the algorithm, separating it from what is process specific.

So looking back on the algorithm -- 1.Get the cards, 2. Shuffle them, 3. Deal the cards. What is different between this and the C++ code before is that here, we don't care how to do it, just get it done. It doesn't matter if I riffled the cards, or pulled some out the middle and put them on top, just as long as they get randomized -- which is what I meant by shuffling them.

The algorithmic way of writing this code would be -- 1.get to the state where i have the cards 2. get to the state where the cards are shuffled 3. get to the state where the cards are dealt. The difference is that this is goal-based -- get there, I don't care how you do it, rather than process-based -- do these specific things.

The Language
The language will be a goal-based language, where each function contains the goal of the function -- which state it will be in after it finishes, and will guarantee that it will get there if the initial conditions are met. Each function will contain a sequence of subgoals to get it from the initial state to the goal state. During compilation/run-time, a STRIPS-like calculation will be done to plan which specific functions to call to create an AST corresponding to the tree of goals and subgoals where each function is a node.

Correctness can be proven since each function is supposed to go from its initial state to goal state, if it doesn't, the the function is incorrect and the run-time can isolate more bugs.

The difficulty in reusing old code is the lack of pre/post information about functions. So a language that requires that information in the form of initial conditions / goal state will allow for greatly reusable code, that will be able to self modify for various purposes at run-time.

K, so there's more to it if people are interested... but right now, it's still in the planning stages, and could use some help from some experts. A simple proof-of-concept version was written in python. I'm trying to work out a version 2 that will compile to parrrot vm. Any ideas/comments/people that are interested?

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Interesting idea.

Interesting idea, but a generic solution for finding the intermediate states between a start state and an end state cannot exist, can it?

generic solution for an

generic solution for an arbitrary search from start state to end state = AI, the programmer is supposed to write the function. think of initial to goal state as like if the parameters of the function are valid integers within range (initial), this function will output the product of the integers(goal)


If you restrict yourself to int types, and anything that can be mapped to it, you might want to look at BDDs. It is pretty easy to encode the relation between your pre- and poststates as BDDs and extract a function out of it.

I would say that "process"

I would say that "process" and "algorithm" are synonyms, so that you need to choose better terminology. It sounds to me like you are talking more about program synthesis from specifications, which is an old and well-studied area. You can probably find some links by searching for "program synthesis."


Sounds like Prolog to me. Can you say how the approach differs? In particular, separating the algorithm (logic) from the process (control) seems to be exactly what the original aim of Logic Programming was, and achieving this by goal-directed search is pretty much how Prolog operates. See e.g. Kowalski's Algorithm = Logic + Control paper (mentioned elsewhere on LtU - e.g. here).

I'm still looking into the

I'm still looking into the subject, but just right off the top of my head, this approach is still very similar to standard imperative programming, except that the functions you call might be swapped out for another one that does the same thing. and it doesn't make heads pop =P (I learned lisp instead of prolog)

Do you know Icon? It is

Do you know Icon? It is goal-directed like Prolog, but imperative. Do you have something similar in mind?

How do you beat quicksort?

I tend to think the general problem of this approach is to specify the goal in a way that is sufficiently abstract, concise and leads to an efficient computation that can be found by the solver automatically. Finally the solution has to be understandable and robust. Just think about the goal "sorted list" and what it takes to specify it instead of writing just a few lines of quicksort in Python or Haskell that directly implements a solution in the form of a particular "process" ( which is indeed an algorithm: a step-by-step mechanical process for doing computations ).

Right, that's the part that

Right, that's the part that I'm working out now. Goal/initial are all states, and defining states in a way that is intuitive to humans, and can be understood by a solver is hard... but it's also what we normally use languages to do. A simple state info would be a list of object value pairs. So to make it intuitive we need to make the objects reflect how we categorize objects. A helpful "library" to include in programs would be a common sense definition of different objects. The hope is that w/ a sorting algorithm, you can just write init: x is-a list, goal: x.list.sorted = true.


Or, nearly impossible with current techniques. [This is the same as asking in COQ to develop a witness (=function) of an ordering relation without user-guidance. Now, mathematically this can be done (just try all algorithms up to a certain complexity), but I don't think COQ can do this without user guidance, yet.]

sorry, i don't understand

sorry, i don't understand the issue. Is it with resolving whether or not we're in a specific state?


Unless I misunderstood you. You want to derive a function which takes an unordered list to an ordered list. That means your specification of that function is at least second-order (one order up from prolog). There is no general [effective] means to derive such a function.

[Removed a lot of crap]

Of course if you're trying to churn out general algorithms... would be a hard problem, but any automated planning system, just like a human, can sort a list without using a hard-coded algorithm, and could probably do it in polynomial time, too (abstractly, of course).

Caveat: the subject is quite a deep rabbit hole; it's called Automated planning and scheduling. NASA has been using it for awhile in their spacecraft! Read about that here. Generally you can search for "automated planning" and find alot about it.

Other people have used the same idea. Google for goal-based programming. Another similar idea is called declarative metaprogramming, which is somewhat like having IO monads in a logic language.

Hopefully this helps.

Planning? Constraint Propagation

Planning through constraint propagation means they're doing some kind of propositional logic. Their problems reduce to problems which are solvable by a sat-solver. Maybe often this means problems will be solvable in polynomial time (if the structure of the problem allows it). However, it is also easy to encode NP-hard problems in SAT, so, no dice: it may be fast for most problems, but you can always encode a problem for which the planner will not find a solution fast (probably).

[I assume they don't restrict their problems to problems which may equivalently stated as boolean logic terms which are in Horn form, because for those particular problems fast linear solvers exist.]

[Actually, I am one of the very few people who believe that P=NP might actually be true. But until someone comes around who actually proves that, and exploitable algorithms come up, that discussion is moot.]

[Hehe, I think I actually found a (small beginning of) an attack on the problem. But I will not share ;-)]

Hmmm, maybe I need to reword

Hmmm, maybe I need to reword some stuff, I didn't intend to build a function generator (that takes in specifications for initial / goal state, and produces a function), but a function library (where the computer can decide which of its functions are best suited to the task at hand). It would be cool if the compiler can fill in the gaps in case it isn't supplied with the function, but just the specs. btw, thanks to everyone for their input, got lots of reading material to go through now =D.

Even selecting a function...

out of a library without explicitly given heuristics, or run-time heuristics, is hard (assuming you know which functions satisfy the specification). If you don't know which functions satisfy a given specification, it is in general impossible for a computer to decide because it would need to give an automatic proof for that.

Floyd-Hoare logic?

Forgive me if I've misunderstood your post, but it sounds like you are essentially trying to embed Floyd-Hoare logic directly into your language (although I'm not quite sure how your comment about "self-modification" would fit in with that understanding). That's essentially what Eiffel's design-by-contract system does (or any one of a number of other DbC systems for that matter). A statically analysed version of the same idea is implemented in languages like SPARK.

All of which is not to say that your idea is bad, rather that it isn't necessarily new. So you may be able to pick up some good ideas by examining how other languages have implemented the same concept. Or perhaps there's more to your idea than I've been able to glean from your comment. In which case it might be helpful if you could clarify how you think what you're trying to do differs from what Eiffel and SPARK have done.

Design-by-contract vs. automated planning

There is an applied difference between design-by-contract and automated planning:

  • In DbC, pre/post conditions act as a controller for program validity (and consequently, our source code).
  • In automated planning, pre/post conditions (in conjunction with a goal) act as a controller for execution flow.

Thanks for the clarification

Ah. Thank you. I'd overlooked the comment to the effect that "...a STRIPS-like calculation will be done to plan which specific functions to call..." I agree, that sounds like automated planning (the reference to STRIPS should have caught my eye). There's certainly been plenty of work in that area, including practical applications in areas like spacecraft autonomy (e.g. compiling high-level science goals down to low-level spacecraft commands).

In a different direction...

In a way, what you are describing is generic programming. "Generic programming" is a vague phrase, sometimes simply used to refer to the use of templates/generics, but I am referring to the specific approach advocated by Alexander Stepanov and David Musser.

Their idea is that you start with a concrete algorithm that is a completely specific "process" (in your terminology), and continually "lift" the algorithm, abstracting over unnecessary details while never giving away the fundamental performance/correctness attributes of the algorithm. Once you have done this "lifting" to the logical/practical limit, what you are left with is the essential algorithm, expressed in terms of a set of constrained parameters.

This is a hack job of explaining his definition of generic programming, so I recommend:, where you can find his classic papers on the subject as well as a draft of his upcoming book which takes it slowly and thoroughly.

The idea of generic

The idea of generic programming in C++ is a very innovative way of approaching algorithms. You can seperate containers from algorithms. They interact through iterators. With C++09 coming, the relationship is expressed through concepts, making the job of communication between parts more clear.

I fear I don't see why it is

I fear I don't see why it is innovative. Are you referring to template meta-programming or to generic programming in general?

What I mean is the STL. It

What I mean is the STL. It provides a new way of thinking about algorithms. An algorithm is not bound to a particular implementation of storage and you can use it on a wide variety of containers.

With the object-oriented way, for each container class, you have to implement all the algorithms you want. Now you implement only one algorithm and your container class only has to provide iterators.

This is idea is far from

This is idea is far from new, nor did it originate with C++. I suggest you pursue the LtU archive, where generic programming in its many forms, as well as Stepanov's earlier work (in Ada) were discussed many times.

However, Stepanov stated

However, Stepanov stated that only in C++, not in Ada or Scheme, could he realized his theory, combining abstraction with efficiency.

Like I said, all this was

Like I said, all this was discussed here many times.
Please try to post your replies by clicking "reply" so as to maintain threading.

Worthwhile idea

I've thought a bit about the suggestion, and given that the language for goals/post-conditions is decidable (something like a version of Hoare logic with bounded quantifiers), then I think the STRIPS algorithm can be made, in principle, to do what you want it to.

Three caveats:

  1. How do you expect the STRIPS algorithm to work if, as you seem to suggest, the functions have no preconditions? At the very least, omitting this information is going to make a big increase to your search space, and it suggests that you may be trying to duck the necessary question of "which procedures are applicable at this stage?", a question that can be tricky to answer with the wrong representation of goals.

  2. Going on from that, how is the algorithm ever going to see that branches are not promising? In your shuffle example, if the cards object has a method that takes the bottom card and puts it on the top, how is the algorithm going to see that the branch that consists of endlessly applying this method is not going anywhere? You need some sort of notion of progress to eliminate these branches, which is trickier than the applicability problem above, and gets harder the more expressive your theory of goals is;
  3. The complexity of the kind of formulae used in practice in Hoare logic are much more complex than those you see in typical AI planning examples. I'm guessing the bad complexity of STRIPS is going to really hurt in this application, unless you come up with good mechanisms for controlling search space explosions.

I think this idea is well worth exploring. Not that I'm an expert on the planning literature, but I haven't seen planning technology applied to code construction like this before.

Imperative program synthesis

Check out:

Ireland and Stark (2006). Combining Proof Plans with Partial Order Planning for Imperative Program Synthesis. In Journal of Automated Software Engineering 13(1).

The article descibes an implemented system that does synthesis of code based on Hoare logic. It does not handle prewritten subroutines, though handling that is mentioned in the further work section. The central technique is searching the space of proofs in Hoare logic of the desired specification, and the heart of the discussion is focussed on the problem area #2 I described above, where they use partial-order planning. They describe its application to some small examples that involve synthesis of loops. The authors cite no similar work (except their own prior efforts), but some prior works on automatic program synthesis by Manna and Waldinger (1977 & later), Dershowitz and Reddy (1994), and also some later articles on logic program synthesis.

Thanks all

Thanks everyone for your comments, there's a lotta stuff that I gotta read up before thinking about this further. It seems like people are saying that it's a good idea to have a goal-based system/ separating the logic from control, but it's been done before with different systems.
I still think this is a new idea though, mostly from the aspect that i haven't gotten to describe (the post was pretty long already) -- the objects and relations that will be required for the state information, and how functions will be chosen. I'll try to read up to do some proper comparisons to prolog/automated planning/eiffel/spark.

You're welcome

I think it is clear that, while there is extensive relevant literature, your idea is quite different from anything described in this thread.

As a point of etiquette, the LtU social norms are to use real names; cf. Marc Hamman Most of us here post with our real, full names as a sign that we are prepared to stand behind our opinions, from The Spirit of LtU. So maybe...

The secret it out!

The secret it out!! my pseudonym is my real-nym in disguise =P

Me bad

I gave some unintelligent remarks which I'll try to clarify, for your benefit (I hope).

You're going to do something with pre-/postconditions, goals and program derivation. so you'll end up doing something with logic (and you are restricted to fundamental results in logic).

To go up the tree, here are some fundamental results (I can think of):

1. your pre- postconditions are stated in (or equivalent to) propositional logic. You can use BDDs to describe the relation and derive functions from them. (Or use BDD checking to see that your relation holds).

2. your pre- postconditions are stated in/equivalent to first-order predicate calculus (in Horn from) (i.e. Prolog). You can use unification for specific instances to derive solutions. You can get rid of the Horn form restriction, I think at the expense of a possible exponential blow-up of the term (I am not sure here).

3. your pre- postconditions are stated in (second or) higher order logic and you try to find matching functions. You can use tactics and heuristics to prove correctness to spec. But don't expect proofs for programs complexer than, say fac, and maybe, sorting.

4. your pre- postconditions are stated in (second or) higher order logic. You can use tactics and heuristics to derive programs, and proofs from the specifications. But don't expect to derive any programs complexer than, say fac.

5. your pre- postconditions are stated in higher order logic but over a finite domain. Try to use quantified BDDs. I have no idea where you'll end up.

No, I agree

I think I understand what you're trying to say... that if you have a well-defined pre-post condition, you can use a variety of methods to create functions. That's good and well, and I would probably include something like it in the language, but the problem I see with making that an integral part of the language is that there isn't a one-size fits-all planner.
Mainly, the issue is, as you mentioned, the expressiveness of the knowledge representation. Too expressive, and the search space explodes, and it'll take forever. Not expressive enough and there will be many things you can't solve.
I hoped to have a very expressive kr, ideally one that can express anything you need with as little repetition as possible, that will store the function's information. As a programming language, the programmer will input the plan (in a classical planning sense) and we won't have to worry about search space. The compiler would have enough information, however, to swap out functions that do the same thing, but better for a given situation.
I think your suggestion would work well with this idea, because you can convert a subset of the functions in a library from the high order logic into a lower order one, and create other functions on the fly. But I wanted to leave that part up to the programmer to fiddle with, not the language.
I know I wasn't clear on the STRIPS part, which prolly confused a lotta people, but it's mostly because there are still a lotta hairy issues w/ it and I didn't think it was central to the main idea of the language. The reason why I need a planner here is to find out about state information. It's impossible and illogical to store ALL the information in the world, you should store just the ones you need -- you don't care about the weather when you're cooking indoors, but you do care about the weather when you need to go out to buy eggs. So the planner is supposed to spit out the information that each algorithm needs by using a library of information retrieval functions (ie the goal is to obtain information). The other option (which I think is less elegant) would be to make no distinction between information retrieval functions and normal functions, and require the user to call them manually (through goal-based function calls, of course), but then garbage collection would be needed.
So hopefully that was clear, if not, please wait till I read up on some of these papers, make some decisions on this aspect of the language, and write a follow-up to the original post.


It's the logical expressiveness of your language, or the equivalence of it to a certain logic, which decides up to what point you can automate parts of your language. [I don't write professionaly about it so it takes some time to state it correctly.]

I don't understand STRIPS, didn't read enough about it. (I think I saw linear backchaining [uh, I meant linear search], which would hint at a weak form of boolean logic, or some resolution based proving. Dunno)

What I get from most planners is that they start out as general solvers on (something as expressive as) boolean logic, and features are added which improve the expressiveness.

I would say that is the wrong way around. If you want to implement a [planner] language with a certain expressiveness, choose a logic which will satisfy your requirements, choose a technology you can easily implement, and build a planner language around that.

[Actually, if it is a planning language you want. I guess I would look at QBDDs, unless you're looking at infinite domains.]

[And also, sorry to say, but I don't like your approach which would work with adding features. Say you start out with something equivalent to boolean logic and add some specific search algorithms on first-order predicates you also want to express. You'll end up with some (weird) hybrid between a classical boolean solver and Prolog. Plz, just implement something akin to Prolog and you're done, and you'll know exactly what is expressible and what not. Or go QBDDs, or something.]


What kind of problem would this type of language be best at solving?

Do you have an example of a small problem best done in this language? Some pseudo-code for your language would be interesting.