Type Witnesses in Haskell

If you read articles that describe some advanced type-level stuff in Haskell or other languages with a similar type system, chances are that you have come across this thing called ‘type witness’ or ‘runtime evidence’. In this post, we will be trying to gain an understanding of what the heck it is.

In simple terms, a runtime witness is a value that in some way holds some type-level information associated with a polymorphic value and makes it available to the type checking process.

But this is confusing because type checking happens at compile time and values are often available only at runtime. So how can values provide type information at compile time?

It is possible because even though values are only available at runtime, if there is a branch in the code (if-then-else, case statements) that branches on a value, we can make assumptions about that value inside each of the branches.

So, for example, if there is a branch in code like:

if (i == 1) then { -- block 1 -- } else { -- block 2 -- }

we can safely assume that if we find ourselves in block 1, then i will be 1 inside that block and if we find ourselves in block 2, then i was not 1.

Thus, at compile time, we will have some information about a value in conditional branches of the code that branches on the said value. The core idea of the type witness technique is to use this information to make the compiler infer the attributes of a polymorphic type, such as what the inferred type is, how it is constrained, etc.

For this, we first need a way to link a value to some type-level detail. In Haskell, we have the GADTs extension that enables us to define a data type of the form

data MyData a where
  MyValue1 :: MyData Int
  MyValue2 :: MyData String
  MyValue3 :: MyData Char

The powerful thing about this kind of data definitions is that it enables us to explicitly mark the constructors to be of a certain concrete type.

And thus, we have declared values MyValue1, MyValue2, and MyValue3 to have types MyData Int, MyData String, and MyData Char respectively. Therefore, these values can now point to what the type a in MyData a is.

Now, let us see how this type can act as a “witness”.

Consider the following function. You can see that by branching on the MyData a value, we are able to figure out what a is.

func1 :: MyData a -> a
func1 myData =
  case myData of
    MyValue1 -> 10 -- `a` is Int here
    MyValue2 -> "I am a string" -- `a` is String here
    MyValue3 -> 'c' -- `a` is Char here

But how is the name “witness” justified? What is it witnessing?

Imagine that this function is part of an expression, say

(10 :: Int) + (func1 MyValue1)

The MyValue1 constructor, by being a part of the call site, is witnessing a piece of information that is only available there, that is, the type required at the call site is actually Int. Hence the name “type witness”. We can have witnesses that witness other things, like a is the same type as b, or a has been constrained in a certain way, etc.


We saw that the values of MyData a can point to what a is. In addition, since each polymorphic variant of MyData a contains one and only one value, the concrete types of MyData a can also point to value, because there is only one possible value for any given variant. Such types where there is a one-to-one correspondence between values and types are called Singletons.

So how is this useful / Why should I care?

Static type systems can feel very restrictive at the beginning, but, if they are sufficiently advanced, you will find that you can get some of that flexibility of dynamically typed languages back while retaining the safety of static typing.

Let’s see an example where this is manifested, which also involves the use of a type witness.

Imagine you are building an application that has got users with different privileges. We represent the possible privilege using a type,

data UserPrivilege = Member | Admin | Guest

and the users can now be represented by something like,

data User = User { userId :: Integer, userName :: String, userPrivilege :: UserPrivilege }

Since we are interested in type safety, we want to make the userPrivilege attribute to be at the type level, so that if we pass a user of privilege Member to a function that requires a user with privilege Admin, the compiler will catch it at compile time.

To do this, we add a type argument to the User type. We also enable the DataKinds extension so that the constructors of UserPrivilege will be available at the type level to tag the User type with. So, we end up with something like,

data User (ut :: UserPrivilege) = User { userId :: Integer, userName :: String }

Now, we have the user privilege at the type level, and this will prevent us from passing User 'Member to a function that requires User 'Admin.

But we find it is now impossible to write a function that reads a user from the database without explicitly specifying which privilege the user has. So for example, we try to implement this function with the following type.

fetchUserById :: Int -> IO (User a)

But this is not possible because if you read the user from the database and find the user to be of type ‘member’, you won’t be able to return the concrete type User 'Member from the function, because the signature says that it should be able to return User a for all a.

The idea of a polymorphic value User a is that it should be able to concretize into any type, as required by the expression where the polymorphic value is used. So here, in the fetchUserById function, if we find the user read from the database to have a privilege of Admin, we can return the concrete value only after checking that the caller of this function is indeed asking for User 'Admin. We have seen how it can be done in the func1 function we saw earlier. But here, we won’t be able to use something like that, simply because we wouldn’t know the privilege of the user when we make the fetchUserById call.

One solution to this problem is to wrap the user type in another type, which will have multiple constructors, each wrapping a different type of user, thus hiding the type-level privilege behind them.

data UserWrapper
  = MemberUser (User 'Member)
  | AdminUser (User 'Admin)
  | GuestUser (User 'Guest)

A problem with this approach is that you will have to match on all these constructors every time you read a user from db to do anything with it, even when you don’t care about the privilege of the user.

Another way to hide the type-level privilege is by using a GADT wrapper type that hides the type-level privilege behind a GADT constructor.

data SomeUser where
  SomeUser :: forall a. User a -> SomeUser

Since the SomeUser type constructor does not have the type parameter, we can wrap it around a User a of any privilege and return from our database read function.

But now, we will find that the User a that is unwrapped from the SomeUser type can only be used with functions that accept a polymorphic user, that is, User a, and cannot be used with a function that requires concrete types, such as User 'Admin.

This is exactly what we wanted in the first place. We are prevented from passing a user of unknown privilege to a function that requires an administrator privilege. But it seems that now we cannot make that call at all. How can we convince the type checker that the User a unwrapped from SomeUser is in fact User 'Admin?

We can do that by using a type witness. We add the following type to act as a witness.

data WitnessPrivilege up where
  WitnessMember :: WitnessPrivilege Member
  WitnessGuest :: WitnessPrivilege Guest
  WitnessAdmin :: WitnessPrivilege Admin

Then we change the User type to include this witness as one of its fields.

data User (up :: UserPrivilege) = User
  { userId :: Integer
  , userName :: String
  , userPrivilege :: WitnessPrivilege up

And that is it. When you want to convert a User a unwrapped from SomeUser to a concrete type, like User 'Admin, you only have to pattern match on the userPrivilege field. As soon as you get a match on the WitnessAdmin branch, GHC will have inferred the User a to be an User 'Admin, and allow you to call functions that require User 'Admin.

Thanks to the included type witness, we get the best of both worlds; a type-level user privilege which gets out of the way when you don’t need it, but can pop up anytime you need it.

Full code sample

{-# Language GADTs #-}
{-# Language DataKinds #-}
{-# Language KindSignatures #-}
{-# Language ExistentialQuantification #-}
{-# Language ScopedTypeVariables #-}

module Main where

import Data.List

-- User privileges for our users
data UserPrivilege = Member | Admin | Guest

-- Our type witness
data WitnessPrivilege up where
  WitnessMember :: WitnessPrivilege Member
  WitnessGuest :: WitnessPrivilege Guest
  WitnessAdmin :: WitnessPrivilege Admin

-- Our user type
data User (up :: UserPrivilege) = User
  { userId :: Integer
  , userName :: String
  , userPrivilege :: WitnessPrivilege up

-- The type that we use to hide the privilege type variable
data SomeUser where
  SomeUser :: User a -> SomeUser

-- A function that accept a user id (Integer), and reads
-- the corresponding user from the database. Note that the return
-- type level privilege is hidden in the return value `SomeUser`.
readUser :: Integer -> IO SomeUser
readUser userId = pure $ case find ((== userId) . (\(a, _, _) -> a)) dbRows of
  Just (id_, name_, type_) ->
    case type_ of
      "member" -> SomeUser (User id_ name_ WitnessMember)
      "guest" -> SomeUser (User id_ name_ WitnessGuest)
      "admin" -> SomeUser (User id_ name_ WitnessAdmin)
  Nothing -> error "User not found"

-- This is a function that does not care
-- about user privilege
getUserName :: User up -> String
getUserName = userName

-- This is a function only allows user
-- with Admin privilege.
deleteStuffAsAdmin :: User 'Admin -> IO ()
deleteStuffAsAdmin _ = pure ()

main :: IO ()
main = do
  (SomeUser user) <- readUser 12

  putStrLn $ getUserName user -- We don't care about user privilege here

  case userPrivilege user of -- But here we do.
    -- So we bring the type-level user privilege in scope by matching
    -- on `userPrivilege` field and then GHC knows that `user`
    -- is actually `User 'Admin`, and so we can call `deleteStuffAsAdmin`
    -- with `user`.
    WitnessAdmin ->
      deleteStuffAsAdmin user
    _ -> error "Need admin user"

dbRows :: [(Integer, String, String)]
dbRows =
  [ (10, "John", "member")
  , (11, "alice", "guest")
  , (12, "bob", "admin")
  1. Introduction to Singletons series
  2. Dependently typed programming with singletons
  3. Dimensions and Haskell: Singletons in Action
  4. Why Dependent Haskell is the Future of Software Development

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