Type Inference

Covariance and Contravariance

• typing

Some weeks ago I gave a introductory talk of Scala for Java programmers. At some point I introduced algebraical data types in Scala using sealed traits, and I though it was a nice moment to show how the language supports covariance and contravariance for generic types.

The audience didn’t agree it was a nice moment. They weren’t familiarized with these terms at all, and we had no time enough to discuss the point in depth. So I decided it was a very good topic to discuss in typeinference.com.

Any programmer is familiarized with the subtyping relationship between two types. Let’s say we have Base and Derived classes so Derived inherits (or extends) Base, as in:

class Base { ... }
class Derived extends Base { ... }

The inheritance mechanism conveys a subtyping relationship of Derived respect Base. In other words, any instance of Derived is also an instance of Base. Because of that, the following statements are valid in Java.

Derived foo = new Derived(...);
Base bar = foo;

All right. Now let’s say we have List<Base> and List<Derived> instead. Is there any subtyping relationship among them? Is the following code valid?

List<Derived> foo = new ArrayList<Derived>();
List<Base> bar = foo;

I’m sure your brain says “Sure! Why not?” but your instinct prevents you from answering. For sure, things get complicated with generics, and this kind of subtyping relationships have non trivial consequences.

Java generics are not covariant

The property of a complex type as List<Derived> to be a subtype of List<Base> is known as covariance. And it is not supported in Java collections. Therefore, the code above compile with errors.

You may think it is Ok to consider a collection of Derived as subtype of a collection of Base. After all, as they are collections, they could be seen as a subset (in algebra of sets) of elements of that type. Since List<Base> is a subset of Base, List<Derived> is a subset of Derived, and Derived is a subset of Base, any List<Derived> must be also a subset of Base, and therefore a subset of List<Base> as well. And this rationale is correct, so covariance is natural for collections.

But, if maths say we are right, why do Java prevents us to use covariance? Because of this:

class OtherDerived extends Base { ... }

List<Derived> foo = new ArrayList<Derived>();
List<Base> bar = foo;
bar.add(new OtherDerived(...));

Let’s say we have OtherDerived class that extends Base as Derived does. We use the bar variable, of type List<Base>, to insert a new element of OtherDerived type. This is valid, since List<Base> may contain any instance of Base, including those of OtherDerived type. But remember: bar is a reference to an instance of ArrayList<Derived> class. Any element inserted in bar would become also an element of foo. Inserting such a OtherDerived instance in bar means foo contains elements of Derived and OtherDerived types. And that is contrary to the type contract of foo (List<Derived>).

This is a good reason for Java to consider generic types non covariant. Nevertheless primitive arrays does support covariance, making the following code valid to the compiler.

Derived[] foo = new Derived[...];
Base[] bar = foo;
bar[0] = new OtherDerived(...);

Although it compiles, it is not type safe and it would crash at runtime with an exception. The reason to support covariance for primitive arrays is likely related with the sorting functions of java.util.Arrays. Or perhaps they didn’t realize they were type unsafe until they were implementing the JVM. Who knows?

Covariance, contravariance and functions

Covariance is closely related to functions. Actually, the problem discussed above may be seen from the perspective of add() method and how the covariance affects subtyping.

Perhaps you didn’t think about it, but functions are also types. And, as such, they may have subtyping relationship among them. For instance, the following two functions keep a subtyping relationship.

public Base foo(Base value);
public Derived bar(Base value);

Here bar is a subtype of foo. Following Liskov substitution principle, wherever a function Base -> Base is required, you may use the function Base -> Derived. That is natural: if the function is invoked expecting a Base as result, receiving a Derived instance is also valid since Derived objects are also Base objects.

That is respect the return value. What about function arguments? This is where we introduce a new concept very hard to explain and understand: contravariance. So please read the following lines carefully.

Let’s say we have the following two functions:

public Base foo(Base value);
public Base bar(Derived value);

Is bar a subtype of foo as before? To be so, wherever we expect a function Base -> Base we should accept a function Derived -> Base. If we do so, we could invoke such function with an instance of Base as input argument. But Derived -> Base cannot accept that! It needs a Derived instance. So indeed bar is not a subtype of foo.

And what about the other way around? Is foo a subtype of bar? Again, to be so wherever we expect a function Derived -> Base we should accept a function Base -> Base. And this time… that’s true!!! If we invoke such function with a Derived instance as input argument, Base -> Base would accept it since Derived objects are also Base objects. So foo is a subtype of bar indeed.

If we represent unary functions using generics, we might have a type like Function<T, R>, where T is the type of the input argument and R is the type of the function result. According to the subtyping relationships we just have illustrated:

All this leads to the following rule: functions are contravariant in the input type and covariant in the output type.

Covariance, contravariance and inheritance

In order to one class to extend another class, it should provide all its members to the same type. That comprises its methods. So in:

class Foo {
    public Base method(Derived value) { ... }

class Bar extends Foo { ... }

… the Bar class should override method to the same function type as defined in Foo signature. The same function type, including a subtype function. So the following code is correct.

class Foo {
    public Derived method(Base value) { ... }

Going back to Java List<T> discussion, we may demonstrate it is not covariant because of add() method from the function subtyping perspective.

class List<T> {
    public T get(int i) { ... }
    public void add(T value) { ... }

If we instantiate List<T> with Base and Derived, we would have something equivalent to the following classes:

class BaseList { // instantiated as List<Base>
    public Base get(int i) { ... }
    public void add(Base value) { ... }

class DerivedList { // instantiated as List<Derived>
    public Derived get(int i) { ... }
    public void add(Derived value) { ... }

In order to check whether DerivedList is a subclass of BaseList, we must check its function. Respect get() method, there is no problem at all. int -> Derived is a subtype of int -> Base, so covariance rules are not violated. Respect add() function, Derived -> void is not a subtype of Base -> void, so covariance is broken.

Covariant generics and immutability

Although Java doesn’t support it, covariance is compatible with generic types. With the appropriate compiler support (as Scala compiler provides), it would be possible to specify constraints on the generic parameters to avoid situations where type integrity is broken.

The following code shows how we can create a generic class List[T] in Scala that supports covariance.

class List[+T] {
  def get(i: Int): T = { ... }

In this code, [+T] means the generic class is covariant respect T, so the following code is valid:

val foo: List[Derived] = new List
val bar: List[Base] = foo

All right. But we are cheating here. As discussed above, get() method is not an obstacle for covariance as add() is. If we try to add the latter we would face problems.

class List[+T] {
  def add(value: T): Unit = { ... }

This code compiles with the following error:

error: covariant type T occurs in contravariant position in type T of value value
       class List[+T] { def add(value: T): Unit = ??? }

Scala compiler knows covariant parameters cannot be used as input arguments, which are in a contravariant position. We can fix that by using a generic function instead.

class List[+T] {
  def add[U >: T](value: U): List[U] = { ... }

val foo: List[Derived] = new List
val bar: List[Base] = foo

val newBar: List[Base] = bar.add(new Base)
val newNewBar: List[Object] = newBar.add(new Object)

Using this add() method, the type of value is constrained to be a supertype of T. That’s what [U >: T] means. Also, instead of returning Unit (e.g., void), we return a new list resulting from appending value and the end of the target list. In other words, we are making our List<T> type immutable. Why do we do that? Well, it is not easy to explain, but if we keep some storage to hold the elements of the list, this storage would hold elements of type T. You cannot add elements of type U to that storage. The only possible option is to return a new list instance that considers all its members as U type. So inserting a Base value in bar returns a new list of Base objects (previous elements of the list were Derived objects, which are also of type Base). We could even add an Object element to that list, which produces a List<Object> list.


Since we are discussing about algebra of sets, let’s make a new allegory using sets. Consider a set P of all possible computer programs. There is a subset of P, you call it C, that represents the programs your compiler considers right (compile without errors). There is another subset of P known as V that represents the valid programs, i.e. those programs that work according to the desire of their authors.

In a perfect world, C and V would be exactly the same set. In other words, your compiler would compile without errors every valid program. And every program your compiler accepts would be valid and would have no errors. But this happens only in a perfect world. In the real world, your compiler considers some valid expressions (from the type system perspective) as errors. And of course, some of the programs your compiler doesn’t complain about are wrong.

Covariance and contravaciance are type system features some compilers don’t cover. This means some valid programs are not accepted by these compilers. You might think such features are barely useful, and they doesn’t worth the effort of understanding their operation. But, if you think about them in C vs V terms, you would realize we are increasing the size of C, conquering new lands to V. More and more valid programs would be accepted by your compiler. The intersection of V and C would be reduced. And that’s indeed a real benefit.

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