Self-Representation in Girard’s System U, by Matt Brown and Jens Palsberg:
In 1991, Pfenning and Lee studied whether System F could support a typed self-interpreter. They concluded that typed self-representation for System F “seems to be impossible”, but were able to represent System F in Fω. Further, they found that the representation of Fω requires kind polymorphism, which is outside Fω. In 2009, Rendel, Ostermann and Hofer conjectured that the representation of kind-polymorphic terms would require another, higher form of polymorphism. Is this a case of infinite regress?
We show that it is not and present a typed self-representation for Girard’s System U, the first for a λ-calculus with decidable type checking. System U extends System Fω with kind polymorphic terms and types. We show that kind polymorphic types (i.e. types that depend on kinds) are sufficient to “tie the knot” – they enable representations of kind polymorphic terms without introducing another form of polymorphism. Our self-representation supports operations that iterate over a term, each of which can be applied to a representation of itself. We present three typed self-applicable operations: a self-interpreter that recovers a term from its representation, a predicate that tests the intensional structure of a term, and a typed continuation-passing-style (CPS) transformation – the first typed self-applicable CPS transformation. Our techniques could have applications from verifiably type-preserving metaprograms, to growable typed languages, to more efficient self-interpreters.
Typed self-representation has come up here on LtU in the past. I believe the best self-interpreter available prior to this work was a variant of Barry Jay's SF-calculus, covered in the paper Typed Self-Interpretation by Pattern Matching (and more fully developed in Structural Types for the Factorisation Calculus). These covered statically typed self-interpreters without resorting to undecidable type:type rules.
However, being combinator calculi, they're not very similar to most of our programming languages, and so self-interpretation was still an active problem. Enter Girard's System U, which features a more familiar type system with only kind * and kind-polymorphic types. However, System U is not strongly normalizing and is inconsistent as a logic. Whether self-interpretation can be achieved in a strongly normalizing language with decidable type checking is still an open problem.
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