Section: Research Program

Scientific Context

Software quality is a requirement that is becoming more and more prevalent, by now far exceeding the traditional scope of embedded systems. The development of tools to construct software that respects a given specification is a major challenge facing computer science. Proof assistants such as Coq [50] provide a formal method whose central innovation is to produce certified programs by transforming the very activity of programming. Programming and proving are merged into a single development activity, informed by an elegant but rigid mathematical theory inspired by the correspondence between programming, logic and algebra: the Curry-Howard correspondence. For the certification of programs, this approach has shown its efficiency in the development of important pieces of certified software such as the C compiler of the CompCert project [79]. The extracted CompCert compiler is reliable and efficient, running only 15% slower than GCC 4 at optimisation level 2 (gcc -O2 ), a level of optimisation that was considered before to be highly unreliable.

Proof assistants can also be used to formalise mathematical theories: they not only provide a means of representing mathematical theories in a form amenable to computer processing, but their internal logic provides a language for reasoning about such theories. In the last decade, proof assistants have been used to verify extremely large and complicated proofs of recent mathematical results, sometimes requiring either intensive computations [61], [65] or intricate combinations of a multitude of mathematical theories [60]. But formalised mathematics is more than just proof checking and proof assistants can help with the organisation mathematical knowledge or even with the discovery of new constructions and proofs.

Unfortunately, the rigidity of the theory behind proof assistants impedes their expressiveness both as programming languages and as logical systems. For instance, a program extracted from Coq only uses a purely functional subset of OCaml, leaving behind important means of expression such as side-effects and objects. Limitations also appears in the formalisation of advanced mathematics: proof assistants do not cope well with classical axioms such as excluded middle and choice which are sometimes used crucially. The fact of the matter is that the development of proof assistants cannot be dissociated from a reflection on the nature of programs and proofs coming from the Curry-Howard correspondence. In the EPC Gallinette, we propose to address several drawbacks of proof assistants by pushing the boundaries of this correspondence.

In the 1970's, the Curry-Howard correspondence was seen as a perfect match between functional programs, intuitionistic logic, and Cartesian closed categories. It received several generalisations over the decades, and now it is more widely understood as a fertile correspondence between computation, logic, and algebra. Nowadays, the view of the Curry-Howard correspondence has evolved from a perfect match to a collection of theories meant to explain similar structures at work in logic and computation, underpinned by mathematical abstractions. By relaxing the requirement of a perfect match between programs and proofs, and instead emphasising the common foundations of both, the insights of the Curry-Howard correspondence may be extended to domains for which the requirements of programming and mathematics may in fact be quite different.

Consider the following two major theories of the past decades, which were until recently thought to be irreconcilable:

  • (Martin-Löf) Type theory: introduced by Martin-Löf in 1971, this formalism [86] is both a programming language and a logical system. The central ingredient is the use of dependent types to allow fine-grained invariants to be expressed in program types. In 1985, Coquand and Huet developed a similar system called the calculus of constructions, which served as logical foundation of the first implementation of Coq. This kind of systems is still under active development, especially with the recent advent of homotopy type theory (HoTT) [108] which gives a new point of view on types and the notion of equality in type theory.

  • The theory of effects: starting in the 1980's, Moggi  [91] and Girard [58] put forward monads and co-monads as describing various compositional notions of computation. In this theory, programs can have side-effects (state, exceptions, input-output), logics can be non-intuitionistic (linear, classical), and different computational universes can interact (modal logics). Recently, the safe and automatic management of resources has also seen a coming of age (Rust, Modern C++) confirming the importance of linear logic for various programming concepts. It is now understood that the characteristic feature of the theory of effects is sensitivity to evaluation order, in contrast with type theory which is built around the assumption that evaluation order is irrelevant.

We now outline a series of scientific challenges aimed at understanding of type theory, effects, and their combination.

More precisely, three key axes of improvement have been identified:

  1. Making the notion of equality closer to what is usually assumed when doing proofs on black board, with a balance between irrelevant equality for simple structures and equality up-to equivalences for more complex ones (Section 3.2). Such a notion of equality should allow one to implement traditional model transformations that enhance the logical power of the proof assistant using distinct compilation phases.

  2. Advancing the foundations of effects within the Curry-Howard approach. The objective is to pave the way for the integration of effects in proof assistants and to prototype the corresponding implementation. This integration should allow for not only certified programming with effects, but also the expression of more powerful logics (Section 3.3).

  3. Making more programming features (notably, object polymorphism) available in proof assistants, in order to scale to practical-sized developments. The objective is to enable programming styles closer to common practices. One of the key challenges here is to leverage gradual typing to dependent programming (Section 3.4).

To validate the new paradigms, we propose in Section 3.5 three particular application fields in which members of the team already have a strong expertise: code refactoring, constraint programming and symbolic computation.