Functional Programming

  1. Historical Origins

    1. Mathematical Origins: In the 1930s a variety of mathematicians, including Alan Turing and Alonzo Church, attempted to formalize the notion of an effective procedure (i.e., an algorithm) for computing the solution to a problem. A procedure represents a constructive proof of a mathematical conjecture, because it provides a concrete way to obtain a mathematical object with some desired property. It is also possible to obtain non-constructive proofs that an object with the desired property must exist, for example, via contradiction. However such proofs are not useful in computation, because they do not yield a computational procedure that allows us to obtain the mathematical object. The desire to find effective procedures for computing solutions led these mathematicians to seek constructive, computational models.

      Turing developed the Turing Machine and Church developed the lambda calculus. The Turing Machine model was an imperative model that emphasized computing using state changes via updates to squares on a tape. The lambda calculus was a functional model that emphasized computing by composing functions and using parameters to communicate state information between functions. It derives its name from the greek character λ, which Church used to introduce parameters to his functions. It was eventually proven that these two models, as well as several other models of computing that were developed at about the same time, were equivalent in terms of their expressiveness, or, put another way, in terms of the set of algorithms they could express. This led Church to conjecture that all intuitively appealing models of computing would be equally powerful as well. This conjecture became known as Church's thesis.

    2. Conceptual Features of Functional Languages
      1. Defines the outputs of a program as a mathematical function of the inputs
      2. No side effects, which means no mutable state: A side effect is a change to the value of a name/value binding.
        1. In pure functional languages, variables are write-once
        2. State information may be passed from one function to another via either parameters or via return values
        3. Emphasize recursion as opposed to iteration

    3. Programming Language Origins: Functional languages were first developed in the late 1950s by artifical intelligence researchers. Their first algorithms were based on branch-and-bound, tree search techniques that lent themselves naturally to recursion. As an example of a branch-and-bound, tree search technique, consider the game of chess. White moves first and has a variety of moves, that represent the first level of the tree. Black then moves and has a variety of moves in response to each move that White can make. These moves constitute the second level of the tree. These levels continue to be elaborated, with each level alternating between moves by White and moves by Black. A computer trying to determine the best move to make for either side cannot possibly hope to search the entire tree, and hence only searches the most promising branches. This type of opportunistic search gives rise to the term branch-and-bound. Recursion provides a natural way to search these trees. Additionally, researchers discovered that trees could be easily modeled using lists, where children were denoted as sublists. These observations led to the development of Lisp, which is considered the first functional language. Lisp stands for LISt Processing language.

  2. Functional Programming Concepts: Functional languages have a variety of features not traditionally found in imperative languages. However, as you look over the following list, you will see that many of the features do show up in modern scripting languages, and that some of the features, such as garbage collection, even show up in compiled languages such as Java.

    1. 1st class functions: A 1st class value is one which may be returned from a function, passed as a parameter to a function, and created as a value and assigned to a variable (second class values may only be passed as parameters).

      Strictly speaking, most imperative languages like C, C++, and Java, treat functions as 2nd class values because you cannot dynamically create a new function and assign it to a variable. By contrast, many functional languages allow functions to create and return functions. For example, the user of a spreadsheet creates a function each time the user types a formula into a cell. A functional language can handle this by passing the code input by a user to a function constructor and then returning the resulting function.

    2. higher-order functions: A higher-order function takes a function as an argument, or returns a function as a result. An example of a higher order function is the map function, which takes a function, such as one that sums its two operands, and applies it to two lists, thus doing a pair-wise summation of the elements of the two lists.

    3. serious polymorphism: Most functional languages support implicit, parametric polymorphism, which means that they do not require users to declare the types of variables, but instead use either dynamic typing or a sophisticated type inferencing algorithm to statically determine the types of variables.

    4. built-in lists: Lists have a natural recursive structure that allows them to work nicely with recursive structures. You can recursively define a list as follows:
      1. The empty list is nil (has no elements)
      2. A list of n+1 elements can be obtained from a list of n elements by either prepending or appending an element to the n-element list

    5. structured function returns: most functional langauges allow all structures in their language, including lists and functions, to be returned from functions. Many imperative languages do not allow certain structures to be returned from a function. For example, C/C++ do not allow arrays to be returned from functions, and imperative languages that support nested functions typically do not allow nested functions to be returned as return values from functions (because then the local variables of the enclosing function could not be discarded)

    6. constructors for aggregates and fully general aggregates: Functional languages provide function constructors which are not provided by most imperative languages and they also provide ways to initialize a structure "all at once". For example, the following constructor creates a list in Lisp:
      (list (list 3 6 3) (list 3) (list 4 5 (list 1 2 3)))
      While one can often do a single level of initialization in imperative languages, it is frequently not possible to do nested initialization, as in the above example.

    7. garbage collection: Both lists and the necessity of allocating some local variables on the heap generate a tremendous amount of temporary data that necessitates garbage collection

  3. Working with Recursion (Section 6.6 of Scott)

    1. Here is an example of how you can replace looping with recursion. With looping the code looks as follows:
      x := 0; i := 1; j := 100;
      while i < j do
          x := x + i*j; 
          i := i + 1;
          j := j - 1
      end while
      return x
      With recursion the code becomes f(0,1,100), where
      f(x,i,j) { 
         if i < j then 
             f(x+i*j, i+1, j-1) 
         else x
      Notice that the recursive code contains no side effects, because each "update" to x, i, and j occurs with fresh x, i, and j variables in a new stack frame. However, it still manages to modify the state by performing the necessary state changes in the argument expressions. This sort of state modification is often called a continuation, since the computation is continued in another function invocation.

    2. The previous example does not really show functional programming at its most elegant, which is what happens when it models a problem that is truly recursive. Recurrence relations are good candidates for functional programming. For example, the factorial function can be written as:
      f(0) = 1
      f(1) = 1
      f(n) = n * f(n-1)
      and this recurrence can be nicely modeled using the following recursive function:
      factorial(n) {
        if (n == 0 or n == 1) return 1
        else return n * f(n-1)
      Similarly the greatest common divisor problem can be elegantly written using recursion:
      int gcd(int a, int b) {
          if (a == b) return a;
          else if (a > b) return gcd(a - b, b);
          else return gcd(a, b - a);
      Some other natural recursive problems involve:
      1. tree traversals, such as for binary search, or preorder, inorder, and postorder traversals
      2. graph traversals, especially for depth-first search

    3. Speeding up Recursion: It is often said that functional programs are slower than imperative programs because recursion is slower than iteration. Recursion is slower because it involves a function call, which in turn involves creating and popping a stack frame. This creation and destruction can create significant overhead, especially when the function does very little computation, as in the factorial and gcd examples shown earlier.

      1. Tail Recursion: If a function is written using tail recursion, then the compiler can optimize the function so that it is actually run as a loop. A tail recursive function is one in which additional computation never follows a recursive call. The return value is simply the value returned by the recursive call. The gcd function is an example of a tail recursive function, but the factorial function is not, because the factorial function multiplies the result of the recursive call by n.

        The compiler optimizes a tail recursive function by re-using the stack frame for the function, rather than creating a new one, and looping back to the beginning of the function after any recursive call. For example, it can rewrite the above gcd function as follows:

        int gcd(int a, int b) {
            if (a == b) return a;
            else if (a > b) {
                a = a - b; goto start;
            else {
                b = b -a; goto start;
        Note that while the code executes using iteration, the programmer's view was a recursive one. Also note why this strategy fails with the factorial function. If we try to re-use factorial's stack frame, then the value of n is corrupted when we return from each recursive call. In fact it will always be 1 on the return from the recursive call, and hence re-using the stack frame will cause the factorial function to always return 1.

      2. Transforming Recursion to Use Tail Recursion: Non tail-recursive functions can be re-written to use tail recursion by pushing the computation into the expressions that compute the arguments. In other words, I re-write the recursion so that it uses a continuation. For example, I can re-write the factorial function to use tail recursion as follows:
        factorial(n, product) {
           if (n == 0 or n == 1) return product
           else return fact(n-1, product * n)
        print factorial(5, 1); // computes and prints 5!
        Personally I do not like this tail-recursive version nearly as much as the original version. I think it is much less elegant and much harder to read and comprehend. This is one reason I dislike functional programming. If the problem is not naturally tail-recursive, then to make it efficient, one often has to re-write it in an imperative style, which defeats the whole purpose of writing a functional program. Here's another example using fibonacci numbers. It has an easy recurrence relation (according to Wikipedia, the modern sequence is written the following way, not the way written in the Scott text--I will be using Wikipedia's definition):
        fib0 = 0
        fib1 = 1
        fibn = fibn-1 + fibn-2
        and a natural functional implementation:
        fib(n) {
          if (n == 0) return 0
          else if (n == 1) return 1
          else return fib(n-1) + fib(n-2)
        Unfortunately this implementation is horribly inefficient. It is in fact exponential, as you can see if you try tracing the actual sequence of function calls. In C you could write a linear time implementation as:
        int fib(int n) {
          int f1 = 0; f2 = 1;   
          int i;
          for (i = 2; i <= n; i++) {
             int temp = f1 + f2;
             f1 = f2; f2 = temp;
          return f2;
        Using this implementation as a template and also assuming I can use nested functions, I can write a linear time continuation-based, functional version for the fibonacci sequence:
        fib(n) {
          fib-helper(f1, f2, i) {
            if (i == n) return f2;
            else return fib-helper(f2, f1 + f2, i+1);
          return fib-helper(0, 1, 0);
        While I think this example helps show the utility of nested functions, I think it also again shows the ugliness that mars functional programming when we have to worry about efficiency. The original elegance of the fibonacci program has been destroyed, and in my opinion, the continuation-based version is much harder to understand and comprehend. You may draw different conclusions based on your own background and proclivities.