Implementing sets with functions alone

Thu 12 April 2018

Filed under Programming languages

Tags ocaml purely functional

Implementation of sets using nothing but functions would be one of the first tricks in the “100 Fun Things to Do With Functions and Closures” book if that book existed. It may not be very practical, but it may help people get into the functional mindset. We'll use OCaml for demonstration.

Our implementation will support the following operations:

  • Checking if a value belongs to a set
  • Inserting new elements into existing sets
  • Creating unions and complements of sets

We'll represent a set S as a function s x such that s x = true if x is a member of S and false otherwise. This way the first goal of our project is already met.

The type of the set functions will be 'a -> bool (if you are new to ML, the 'a here is a type variable that can be replaced by any type, as long as all occurences of 'a within an expression are replaced with the same type — this is known as parametric polymorphism).

In this approach, a set and a function that checks if a value belongs to it is the same, but we can add a little syntactic sugar to make it look as if sets were somehow special:

let is_in s x = s x

The empty set can be represented as a function that returns false for any argument, since by definition it's a set that has no elements, and nothing belongs to it:

let empty x = false

How can we represent a non-empty set? Let's start with a set of just one element. To find out if something belongs to it, we just need to compare it with a fixed value, and return false if they are not equal:

let set_of_one x =
  if x = 1 then true
  else false

Or we can rewrite it using the empty function we've defined earlier as the base case for recursion:

let set_of_one x =
  if x = 1 then true
  else empty x

Note that we've just essentially created a non-empty set from the empty set. Now we have the template for set functions, and it's easy to see how to make a set of two elements (say 1 and 2) from set_of_one:

let set_of_one_and_two x =
  if x = 2 then true
  else set_of_one x

Now we are just one step away from the second goal of creating a function for inserting elements into existing sets. All we need is a simple higher order function that takes a set s and value e and returns a new function s' x that returns true is x = e, or the value of s x otherwise.

let insert e s =
  fun x -> if x = e then true else s x

We can build sets of any finite size from the empty set with it:

let one = insert 1 empty
let two = insert 2 one
let three = insert 3 two

let a = in_set three 2 (* true *)
let b = in_set three 4 (* false *)

Now to the union and the complement. You might have noticed that with our insert function, we'are essentially representing finite sets as unions of single element sets, but here we are talking about a user-friendly way to create a union of two arbitrary sets.

By definition, an element is in the union of sets A and B if it belongs to at least one of them. We can implement the union function simply by following the definition.

let union s s' =
  fun x -> (is_in s x) || (is_in s' x)

The definition of the (relative) complement of sets A and B is a set that includes all elements of A that are not in B.

let complement s s' =
  fun x -> (is_in s x) && not (is_in s' x)

Let's test them:

let s = insert 3 empty |> insert 2
let s' = insert 1 empty

let u = union s s'
let c = complement u s'

let x = is_in u 3 (* true *)
let y = is_in u 1 (* true *)
let z = is_in u 0 (* false *)

let v = is_in c 1 (* false *)
let w = is_in c 3 (* true *)

Now that all goals are met, we can even wrap everything into a module:

module type MYSET = sig
  type 'a set = 'a -> bool
  val empty : 'a set
  val is_in : 'a set -> 'a -> bool
  val insert : 'a -> 'a set -> 'a set

  val union : 'a set -> 'a set -> 'a set
  val complement : 'a set -> 'a set -> 'a set
end

module MySet : MYSET = struct
  type 'a set = 'a -> bool

  let empty x = false

  let is_in s x = s x

  let insert e s =
    fun x -> if x = e then true else s x

  let union s s' =
    fun x -> (is_in s x) || (is_in s' x)

  let complement s s' =
    fun x -> (is_in s x) && not (is_in s' x)
end

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