Generic programming in Scala with Shapeless

In my last post about evolutionary computing, I mentioned I started building the project partly just so I could have a play with Shapeless. Shapeless is a generic programming library for Scala, which is growing in popularity - but can be fairly complicated to get started with.

I had used Shapeless from a distance up until this point - using libraries like Circe or Spray-Json-Shapeless that use Shapeless under the hood to do stuff like JSON de/serialisation without boilerplate overhead of having to define all the different case classes/sealed traits that we want to serialise.

You can read the previous post for more details (and the code) if you want to understand exactly what the goal was, but to simplify, the first thing I needed to achieve was for a given case class, generate a brand new instance.

Now I wanted the client of the library to be able to pass in any case class they so wished, so I needed to be able to generically inspect all attributes of any given case class* and then decide how to generate a new instance for it.

Thinking about this problem in traditional JVM terms, you may be thinking you could use reflection - which is certainly one option, although some people still have a strong dislike for reflection in the JVM, and also has the downside that its not type safe - that is, if someone passes in some attribute that you don't want to support (a DateTime, UUID, etc) then it would have to be handled at runtime (which also means more exception handling code, as well as loosing the compile time safety). Likewise, you could just ask clients of the code to pass in a Map of the attributes, which dodges the need for reflection but still has no type safety either.

Enter Shapeless

Shapeless allows us to represent case classes and sealed traits in a generic structure, that can be easily inspected, transformed and put into new classes.

A case class, product and HList walk into a bar

A case class can be thought of as a product (in the functional programming, algebraic data type sense), that is, case class Person(name: String, age: Int, living: Boolean) is the product of name AND age AND living - that is, every time you have an instance of that case class you will always have an instance of name AND age AND living. Great. So, as well as being a product, the case class in this example also carries semantic meaning in the type itself - that is, for this instance as well as having these three attributes we also know an additional piece of information that this is a Person. This is of course super helpful, and kinda central to the idea of a type system! But maybe sometimes, we want to be able to just generically (but still type safe!) say I have some code that doesn't care about the semantics of what something is, but if it has three attributes of String, Int, Boolean, then I can handle it - and that's what Shapeless provides - It provides a structure called a HList (a Heterogeneous List) that allows you to define a type as a list of different types, but in a compile time checked way.

Rather that a standard List in Scala (or Java) where by we define the type that the list will contain, with a HList, we can define the list as specific types, for example:
The above example allows us to define out HList with specific types, which provides our compile time safety - the :: notation is some syntactical sugar provided by Shapeless to mirror normal Scala list behaviour, and HNil is the type for an empty HList.

Case class to HList and back again

Ok, cool - we have a way to explicitly define very specific heterogeneous lists of types - how can this help us? We might not want to be explicitly defining these lists everywhere. Once again Shapeless steps in and provides a type class called Generic.

The Generic type class allows conversion of a case class to a HList, and back again, for example:
Through compile time macros, Shapeless provides us these Generic type classes for any case class. We can then use these Generic classes to convert to and from case classes and HLists:

Back to the problem at hand

So, we now have the means to convert any given case class to a HList (that can be inspected, traversed etc) - which is great, as this means we can allow our client to pass in any case class and we just need to be able to handle the generation of/from a HList.

To start with, we will define our type class for generation:

Now, in the companion object we will define a helper method, that can be called simply without needing anything passed into scope, and the necessary Generator instance will be provided implicitly (and if there aren't any appropriate implicits, then we get our compile time error, which is our desired behaviour)

As you can see, we can just call the helper method with an appropriate type argument and as long as there is an implicit Generator in scope for that type, then it will invoke that generate method and *hopefully* generate a new instance of that type.

Next, we need to define some specific generators, for now, I will just add the implicits to support some basic types:
All simple so far - if we call Generator.generate[Int] then it gets the implicit Generator[Int] and generates a random int (not that useful, perhaps, but it works!)

Now comes the part where our generate method can handle a case class being passed in, and subsequently the Shapeless HList representations of a case class (we will recursively traverse a HList structure using appropriate implict generators). First up, lets look at how we can implicitly handle a case class being passed in - at first this may start to look daunting, but its really not that bad.. honestly:
So, what is going on there? The implicit is bound by two types: [T, L <: HList] - which is then used in the implicit argument passed into the method implicit generic: Generic.Aux[T, L] and argument lGen: Generator[L] - this matches for all types T that there exists in scope a Shapeless Generic instance that can convert it into some HList L, and for which L an implicit Generator exists.  Now we know from our earlier look at Shapeless that it will provide a Generic instance for any case class (and case classes will be converted into a HList), so this implicit will be used in the scenario where by we pass in a case class instance, as long as we have an implicit Generator in scope that can handle a HList: So lets add that next!

Let's start with the base-case, as we saw earlier, HNil is the type for an empty HList so lets start with that one:
Remember, the goal is from a given case class (and therefore a given HList) is to generate a new one, so for an empty HList, we just want to return the same.

Next we need to handle a generator for a non-empty HList:
So this case is also relatively simple, because our HList is essentially like a linked list, we will handle it recursively - and the type parameters [H, T <: HList] represent the type of the head of the HList (probably a simple type -  in which case it will try to resolve the implicit using our original Int/Boolean/Double generators) and the tail of the HList which will be another HList (possibly a HNil if we are at the end of the list, otherwise this will resolve recursively to this generator again). We grab the implicit Generator for the head and tail then simply call generate on both and that's really all there is to it! We have defined the implicit for the top level case class (which converts it to the generic HList and then calls generate on that), we have the implicit to recursively traverse the HList structure and we have finally the implicits to handle the simple types that might be in our case class.

Now we can simply define a case class, pass it to our helper method and it will generate a brand new instance for us:

I was using this approach to generate candidates for my evolutionary algorithm, however the exact same approach could be used easily to generate test data (or much more). I used the same approach documented here to later transform instances of case classes as well.

Here is the completed code put together:


I have mentioned so far that Shapeless provides the means to transform case classes and sealed traits to generic structures, but have only really talked about case classes. The sealed trait is a slightly different shape to a case class (it is analogous to the algebraic data type co-product) and accordingly, Shapeless has a different structure to handle it, rather than a HList it has a type called Coproduct. The above code can be extended to also handle sealed traits, to do so you just need to add the implicit to handle the empty coproduct (CNil) and recursively handle the Coproduct.