Principled type conversions with Natural Transformations

Alex Kelley
Sep 28 · 6 min read

Note: This is Tutorial 24 in the series Make the leap from JavaScript to PureScript. Be sure to read the series introduction where we cover the goals & outline, and the installation,compilation, & running of PureScript. I’ll be publishing a new tutorial approximatelyonce-per-month. So come back often, there’s a lot more to come!

Index | << Introduction < Tutorial 23 | Tutorial 25 >>

In the last tutorial, we wrapped up our look at the Traversable type class with an example of how to process a sequence of HTTP GET requests using the member function traverse. Now, we'll move on to natural transformations in functional programming - what they are and the laws they must obey. Then, in the next tutorial, we'll show how natural transformations come in handy during everyday programming.

I borrowed this series outline, and the JavaScript code samples with permission from the course Professor Frisby Introduces Composable Functional JavaScript by Brian Lonsdorf — thank you, Brian! A fundamental assumption is that you’ve watched his video on the topic before tackling the equivalent PureScript abstraction featured in this tutorial. Brian covers the featured concepts exceptionally well, and I feel it’s better that you understand its implementation in the comfort of JavaScript.

You’ll find the text and code examples for this tutorial on Github. If you read something that you feel could be explained better, or a code example that needs refactoring, then please let me know via a comment or send me a pull request. Also, before leaving, please give it a star to help me publicize these tutorials.

Natural Transformations

As Brian mentions in his video, a simple explanation of a natural transformation is that its a type conversion. It takes one functor holding an element a to another functor holding that same a. You can think of it as a change in data constructors F a -> G a. Let’s implement a natural transformation by turning an Either data constructor into a Task data constructor.

Example: Transforming Either to a Task

Recall from Tutorial 3 that Either is used to express a computation that may or may not succeed. Either a b always contains a value of a or b; defined by the constructors Left a or Right b, but never both at the same time. Right b is the idiomatic designation of a successful computation, while Left a means a failed computation. We naturally transform Either to a Task by mapping Left a to taskRejected and Right b to taskOf.

Let's create this natural transformation eitherToTask with the following JavaScript code:

const eitherToTask = e => 
e.fold(Task.rejected, Task.of)
.fork(e => console.error('err', e),
r => console.log('res', r))
.fork(e => console.error('err', e),
r => console.log('res', r))

In PureScript, the equivalent to e.fold is the either function from the Data.Either module. Using point free style, the equivalent code in PureScript is:

type Error = String eitherToTask :: forall a. Either Error a -> TaskE Error a eitherToTask = 
either (\e -> taskRejected e) (\a -> taskOf a)
main :: Effect Unit
main = do
void $ launchAff $ eitherToTask (Right "Nightingale") #
fork (\e -> Console.error $ "Error: " <> e)
(\s -> Console.log $ "Result: " <> s)

With the help of a type alias, we designate our Error type to be a String. Calling eitherToTask with (Right "Nightingale")and logging to the console we get Result: Nightengale. Calling eitherToTask with a (Left "errrrr") argument will console.error the string Error: errrrr.

Now, let’s try another example using our old friend Box from Tutorial 2.

Example: Transforming Box to Either

First, Brian’s example in JavaScript:

const boxToEither = b => 
const res = boxToEither(Box(100))

Similarly in PureScript:

type Error = String boxToEither :: forall b. Box b -> Either Error b 
boxToEither (Box b) = Right b
main :: Effect Unit
main = do
logShow $ boxToEither $ Box 100

Compared to the JavaScript example, notice that we don’t provide a fold operation in our PureScript code. Instead, we leverage Purescript’s pattern matching capabilities to take our b from Box and put it into Either's Right constructor directly.

If you try compiling boxToEither (Box b) = Left b, you'll get an error. Why? Look at boxToEither's type signature: forall b. Box b -> Either Error b. We see that when Box b is transformed, our b is defined by the Right b constructor. If the compiler permitted us to chose Left b, then it would be invalid because it violates the laws of natural transformations, described below.

Natural Transformation Laws

We can express the laws of natural transformations with the following:

  1. For every element a, and the functors F and G, the natural transformation nt between F and G is a morphism (i.e., mapping) from F a to G a.
  2. For any natural transformation nt, when you transform any element a and map over it, then it is equivalent to mapping over a, then applying the natural transformation to the result. This is a commutative operation that can be expressed as: map (a -> b) -> nt a -> nt b == nt $ map (a -> b) -> f a -> f b.

Natural Transformation Diagram

The commutative diagram below helps to visualize the natural transformation laws expressed above:

Natural Transformation Diagram

If we have an element a, contained within the functor F and we map over it with a function map (a -> b), then we obtain F b. Furthermore, if we apply the natural transformation nt to F b, we get G b. Going the other way, if instead we first apply the natural transformation nt to F a to obtain G a, then we map over it with the same function (a -> b) we reach the same result G b.

Testing for a natural transformation

Let’s apply these laws to confirm that boxToEither is a natural transformation:

-- The left side of the commutative expression 
-- (a -> b) -> nt a -> nt b
res1 :: Either Error Int
res1 = map (\x -> x * 2) (boxToEither $ Box 100)
-- The right side of the commutative expression
-- nt $ (a -> b) -> f a -> f b
res2 :: Either Error Int
res2 = boxToEither $ map (\x -> x * 2) (Box 100)

When we log the results of both functions, the console output is Right 200, confirming that boxToEither is a natural transformation. Let's apply these laws to one more example, head, which takes the first element of Array Int and naturally transforms it to Maybe Int:

-- (a -> b) -> nt a -> nt b 
res3 :: Maybe Int
res3 = (\x -> x + 1) <$> head [1, 2, 3]
-- nt $ (a -> b) -> f a -> f b
res4 :: Maybe Int
res4 = head $ (\x -> x + 1) <$> [1, 2, 3]

The functionhead, gets the first element a , from an array, returning Just a or Nothing when the array is empty. Here again, logging the result to the console produces: Just 2 for both functions. Whenever the array is empty, then both functions return Nothing.


In this tutorial, we looked at a natural transformation — what it is, and what laws it obeys. A simple explanation of a natural transformation is that it is a type conversion. It takes one functor holding an elementa, to another functor holding that same a. You can think of it as a data constructor change F a -> G a. Delving further, we find that natural transformations obey the law of commutativity. Such that map (a -> b) -> nt a -> nt b == nt $ map (a -> b) -> F a -> F b, where nt is a natural transformation from the functor F to a functor G.

In the next tutorial, we’ll continue with natural transformations by looking at examples of where they come in handy. That’s all for now. If you are enjoying these tutorials, then please help me to tell others by recommending this article and favoring it on social media. Till next time!

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