A probability monad for the bootstrap particle filter

Introduction

In the previous post I showed how to write your own general-purpose monadic probabilistic programming language from scratch in 50 lines of (Scala) code. That post is a pre-requisite for this one, so if you haven’t read it, go back and have a quick skim through it before proceeding. In that post I tried to keep everything as simple as possible, but at the expense of both elegance and efficiency. In this post I’ll address one problem with the implementation from that post – the memory (and computational) overhead associated with forming the Cartesian product of particle sets during monadic binding (flatMap). So if particle sets are typically of size N, then the Cartesian product is of size N^2, and multinomial resampling is applied to this set of size N^2 in order to sample back down to a set of size N. But this isn’t actually necessary. We can directly construct a set of size N, certainly saving memory, but also potentially saving computation time if the conditional distribution (on the right of the monadic bind) can be efficiently sampled. If we do this we will have a probability monad encapsulating the logic of a bootstrap particle filter, such as is often used for computing the filtering distribution of a state-space model in time series analysis. This simple change won’t solve the computational issues associated with deep monadic binding, but does solve the memory problem, and can lead to computationally efficient algorithms so long as care is taken in the formulation of probabilistic programs to ensure that deep monadic binding doesn’t occur. We’ll discuss that issue in the context of state-space models later, once we have our new SMC-based probability monad.

Materials for this post can be found in my blog repo, and a draft of this post itself can be found in the form of an executable tut document.

An SMC-based monad

The idea behind the approach to binding used in this monad is to mimic the “predict” step of a bootstrap particle filter. Here, for each particle in the source distribution, exactly one particle is drawn from the required conditional distribution and paired with the source particle, preserving the source particle’s original weight. So, in order to operationalise this, we will need a draw method adding into our probability monad. It will also simplify things to add a flatMap method to our Particle type constructor.

To follow along, you can type sbt console from the min-ppl2 directory of my blog repo, then paste blocks of code one at a time.

  import breeze.stats.{distributions => bdist}
  import breeze.linalg.DenseVector
  import cats._
  import cats.implicits._

  implicit val numParticles = 2000

  case class Particle[T](v: T, lw: Double) { // value and log-weight
    def map[S](f: T => S): Particle[S] = Particle(f(v), lw)
    def flatMap[S](f: T => Particle[S]): Particle[S] = {
      val ps = f(v)
      Particle(ps.v, lw + ps.lw)
    }
  }

I’ve added a dependence on cats here, so that we can use some derived methods, later. To take advantage of this, we must provide evidence that our custom types conform to standard type class interfaces. For example, we can provide evidence that Particle[_] is a monad as follows.

  implicit val particleMonad = new Monad[Particle] {
    def pure[T](t: T): Particle[T] = Particle(t, 0.0)
    def flatMap[T,S](pt: Particle[T])(f: T => Particle[S]): Particle[S] = pt.flatMap(f)
    def tailRecM[T,S](t: T)(f: T => Particle[Either[T,S]]): Particle[S] = ???
  }

The technical details are not important for this post, but we’ll see later what this can give us.

We can now define our Prob[_] monad in the following way.

  trait Prob[T] {
    val particles: Vector[Particle[T]]
    def draw: Particle[T]
    def mapP[S](f: T => Particle[S]): Prob[S] = Empirical(particles map (_ flatMap f))
    def map[S](f: T => S): Prob[S] = mapP(v => Particle(f(v), 0.0))
    def flatMap[S](f: T => Prob[S]): Prob[S] = mapP(f(_).draw)
    def resample(implicit N: Int): Prob[T] = {
      val lw = particles map (_.lw)
      val mx = lw reduce (math.max(_,_))
      val rw = lw map (lwi => math.exp(lwi - mx))
      val law = mx + math.log(rw.sum/(rw.length))
      val ind = bdist.Multinomial(DenseVector(rw.toArray)).sample(N)
      val newParticles = ind map (i => particles(i))
      Empirical(newParticles.toVector map (pi => Particle(pi.v, law)))
    }
    def cond(ll: T => Double): Prob[T] = mapP(v => Particle(v, ll(v)))
    def empirical: Vector[T] = resample.particles.map(_.v)
  }

  case class Empirical[T](particles: Vector[Particle[T]]) extends Prob[T] {
    def draw: Particle[T] = {
      val lw = particles map (_.lw)
      val mx = lw reduce (math.max(_,_))
      val rw = lw map (lwi => math.exp(lwi - mx))
      val law = mx + math.log(rw.sum/(rw.length))
      val idx = bdist.Multinomial(DenseVector(rw.toArray)).draw
      Particle(particles(idx).v, law)
    }
  }

As before, if you are pasting code blocks into the REPL, you will need to use :paste mode to paste these two definitions together.

The essential structure is similar to that from the previous post, but with a few notable differences. Most fundamentally, we now require any concrete implementation to provide a draw method returning a single particle from the distribution. Like before, we are not worrying about purity of functional code here, and using a standard random number generator with a globally mutating state. We can define a mapP method (for “map particle”) using the new flatMap method on Particle, and then use that to define map and flatMap for Prob[_]. Crucially, draw is used to define flatMap without requiring a Cartesian product of distributions to be formed.

We add a draw method to our Empirical[_] implementation. This method is computationally intensive, so it will still be computationally problematic to chain several flatMaps together, but this will no longer be N^2 in memory utilisation. Note that again we carefully set the weight of the drawn particle so that its raw weight is the average of the raw weight of the empirical distribution. This is needed to propagate conditioning information correctly back through flatMaps. There is obviously some code duplication between the draw method on Empirical and the resample method on Prob, but I’m not sure it’s worth factoring out.

It is worth noting that neither flatMap nor cond triggers resampling, so the user of the library is now responsible for resampling when appropriate.

We can provide evidence that Prob[_] forms a monad just like we did Particle[_].

  implicit val probMonad = new Monad[Prob] {
    def pure[T](t: T): Prob[T] = Empirical(Vector(Particle(t, 0.0)))
    def flatMap[T,S](pt: Prob[T])(f: T => Prob[S]): Prob[S] = pt.flatMap(f)
    def tailRecM[T,S](t: T)(f: T => Prob[Either[T,S]]): Prob[S] = ???
  }

Again, we’ll want to be able to create a distribution from an unweighted collection of values.

  def unweighted[T](ts: Vector[T], lw: Double = 0.0): Prob[T] =
    Empirical(ts map (Particle(_, lw)))

We will again define an implementation for distributions with tractable likelihoods, which are therefore easy to condition on. They will typically also be easy to draw from efficiently, and we will use this fact, too.

  trait Dist[T] extends Prob[T] {
    def ll(obs: T): Double
    def ll(obs: Seq[T]): Double = obs map (ll) reduce (_+_)
    def fit(obs: Seq[T]): Prob[T] = mapP(v => Particle(v, ll(obs)))
    def fitQ(obs: Seq[T]): Prob[T] = Empirical(Vector(Particle(obs.head, ll(obs))))
    def fit(obs: T): Prob[T] = fit(List(obs))
    def fitQ(obs: T): Prob[T] = fitQ(List(obs))
  }

We can give implementations of this for a few standard distributions.

  case class Normal(mu: Double, v: Double)(implicit N: Int) extends Dist[Double] {
    lazy val particles = unweighted(bdist.Gaussian(mu, math.sqrt(v)).
      sample(N).toVector).particles
    def draw = Particle(bdist.Gaussian(mu, math.sqrt(v)).draw, 0.0)
    def ll(obs: Double) = bdist.Gaussian(mu, math.sqrt(v)).logPdf(obs)
  }

  case class Gamma(a: Double, b: Double)(implicit N: Int) extends Dist[Double] {
    lazy val particles = unweighted(bdist.Gamma(a, 1.0/b).
      sample(N).toVector).particles
    def draw = Particle(bdist.Gamma(a, 1.0/b).draw, 0.0)
    def ll(obs: Double) = bdist.Gamma(a, 1.0/b).logPdf(obs)
  }

  case class Poisson(mu: Double)(implicit N: Int) extends Dist[Int] {
    lazy val particles = unweighted(bdist.Poisson(mu).
      sample(N).toVector).particles
    def draw = Particle(bdist.Poisson(mu).draw, 0.0)
    def ll(obs: Int) = bdist.Poisson(mu).logProbabilityOf(obs)
  }

Note that we now have to provide an (efficient) draw method for each implementation, returning a single draw from the distribution as a Particle with a (raw) weight of 1 (log weight of 0).

We are done. It’s a few more lines of code than that from the previous post, but this is now much closer to something that could be used in practice to solve actual inference problems using a reasonable number of particles. But to do so we will need to be careful do avoid deep monadic binding. This is easiest to explain with a concrete example.

Using the SMC-based probability monad in practice

Monadic binding and applicative structure

As explained in the previous post, using Scala’s for-expressions for monadic binding gives a natural and elegant PPL for our probability monad “for free”. This is fine, and in general there is no reason why using it should lead to inefficient code. However, for this particular probability monad implementation, it turns out that deep monadic binding comes with a huge performance penalty. For a concrete example, consider the following specification, perhaps of a prior distribution over some independent parameters.

    val prior = for {
      x <- Normal(0,1)
      y <- Gamma(1,1)
      z <- Poisson(10)
    } yield (x,y,z)

Don’t paste that into the REPL – it will take an age to complete!

Again, I must emphasise that there is nothing wrong with this specification, and there is no reason in principle why such a specification can’t be computationally efficient – it’s just a problem for our particular probability monad. We can begin to understand the problem by thinking about how this will be de-sugared by the compiler. Roughly speaking, the above will de-sugar to the following nested flatMaps.

    val prior2 =
      Normal(0,1) flatMap {x =>
        Gamma(1,1) flatMap {y =>
          Poisson(10) map {z =>
            (x,y,z)}}}

Again, beware of pasting this into the REPL.

So, although written from top to bottom, the nesting is such that the flatMaps collapse from the bottom-up. The second flatMap (the first to collapse) isn’t such a problem here, as the Poisson has a O(1) draw method. But the result is an empirical distribution, which has an O(N) draw method. So the first flatMap (the second to collapse) is an O(N^2) operation. By extension, it’s easy to see that the computational cost of nested flatMaps will be exponential in the number of monadic binds. So, looking back at the for expression, the problem is that there are three <-. The last one isn’t a problem since it corresponds to a map, and the second last one isn’t a problem, since the final distribution is tractable with an O(1) draw method. The problem is the first <-, corresponding to a flatMap of one empirical distribution with respect to another. For our particular probability monad, it’s best to avoid these if possible.

The interesting thing to note here is that because the distributions are independent, there is no need for them to be sequenced. They could be defined in any order. In this case it makes sense to use the applicative structure implied by the monad.

Now, since we have told cats that Prob[_] is a monad, it can provide appropriate applicative methods for us automatically. In Cats, every monad is assumed to be also an applicative functor (which is true in Cartesian closed categories, and Cats implicitly assumes that all functors and monads are defined over CCCs). So we can give an alternative specification of the above prior using applicative composition.

 val prior3 = Applicative[Prob].tuple3(Normal(0,1), Gamma(1,1), Poisson(10))
// prior3: Wrapped.Prob[(Double, Double, Int)] = Empirical(Vector(Particle((-0.057088546468105204,0.03027578552505779,9),0.0), Particle((-0.43686658266043743,0.632210127012762,14),0.0), Particle((-0.8805715148936012,3.4799656228544706,4),0.0), Particle((-0.4371726407147289,0.0010707859994652403,12),0.0), Particle((2.0283297088320755,1.040984491158822,10),0.0), Particle((1.2971862986495886,0.189166705596747,14),0.0), Particle((-1.3111333817551083,0.01962422606642761,9),0.0), Particle((1.6573851896142737,2.4021836368401415,9),0.0), Particle((-0.909927220984726,0.019595551644771683,11),0.0), Particle((0.33888133893822464,0.2659823344145805,10),0.0), Particle((-0.3300797295729375,3.2714740256437667,10),0.0), Particle((-1.8520554352884224,0.6175322756460341,10),0.0), Particle((0.541156780497547...

This one is mathematically equivalent, but safe to paste into your REPL, as it does not involve deep monadic binding, and can be used whenever we want to compose together independent components of a probabilistic program. Note that “tupling” is not the only possibility – Cats provides a range of functions for manipulating applicative values.

This is one way to avoid deep monadic binding, but another strategy is to just break up a large for expression into separate smaller for expressions. We can examine this strategy in the context of state-space modelling.

Particle filtering for a non-linear state-space model

We can now re-visit the DGLM example from the previous post. We began by declaring some observations and a prior.

    val data = List(2,1,0,2,3,4,5,4,3,2,1)
// data: List[Int] = List(2, 1, 0, 2, 3, 4, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1)

    val prior = for {
      w <- Gamma(1, 1)
      state0 <- Normal(0.0, 2.0)
    } yield (w, List(state0))
// prior: Wrapped.Prob[(Double, List[Double])] = Empirical(Vector(Particle((4.220683377724395,List(0.37256749723762683)),0.0), Particle((0.4436668049925418,List(-1.0053578391265572)),0.0), Particle((0.9868899648436931,List(-0.6985099310193449)),0.0), Particle((0.13474375773634908,List(0.9099291736792412)),0.0), Particle((1.9654021747685184,List(-0.042127103727998175)),0.0), Particle((0.21761202474220223,List(1.1074616830012525)),0.0), Particle((0.31037163527711015,List(0.9261849914020324)),0.0), Particle((1.672438830781466,List(0.01678529855289384)),0.0), Particle((0.2257151759143097,List(2.5511304854128354)),0.0), Particle((0.3046489890769499,List(3.2918304533361398)),0.0), Particle((1.5115941814057159,List(-1.633612165168878)),0.0), Particle((1.4185906813831506,List(-0.8460922678989864))...

Looking carefully at the for-expression, there are just two <-, and the distribution on the RHS of the flatMap is tractable, so this is just O(N). So far so good.

Next, let’s look at the function to add a time point, which previously looked something like the following.

    def addTimePointSIS(current: Prob[(Double, List[Double])],
      obs: Int): Prob[(Double, List[Double])] = {
      println(s"Conditioning on observation: $obs")
      for {
        tup <- current
        (w, states) = tup
        os = states.head
        ns <- Normal(os, w)
        _ <- Poisson(math.exp(ns)).fitQ(obs)
      } yield (w, ns :: states)
    }
// addTimePointSIS: (current: Wrapped.Prob[(Double, List[Double])], obs: Int)Wrapped.Prob[(Double, List[Double])]

Recall that our new probability monad does not automatically trigger resampling, so applying this function in a fold will lead to a simple sampling importance sampling (SIS) particle filter. Typically, the bootstrap particle filter includes resampling after each time point, giving a special case of a sampling importance resampling (SIR) particle filter, which we could instead write as follows.

    def addTimePointSimple(current: Prob[(Double, List[Double])],
      obs: Int): Prob[(Double, List[Double])] = {
      println(s"Conditioning on observation: $obs")
      val updated = for {
        tup <- current
        (w, states) = tup
        os = states.head
        ns <- Normal(os, w)
        _ <- Poisson(math.exp(ns)).fitQ(obs)
      } yield (w, ns :: states)
      updated.resample
    }
// addTimePointSimple: (current: Wrapped.Prob[(Double, List[Double])], obs: Int)Wrapped.Prob[(Double, List[Double])]

This works fine, but we can see that there are three <- in this for expression. This leads to a flatMap with an empirical distribution on the RHS, and hence is O(N^2). But this is simple enough to fix, by separating the updating process into separate “predict” and “update” steps, which is how people typically formulate particle filters for state-space models, anyway. Here we could write that as

    def addTimePoint(current: Prob[(Double, List[Double])],
      obs: Int): Prob[(Double, List[Double])] = {
      println(s"Conditioning on observation: $obs")
      val predict = for {
        tup <- current
        (w, states) = tup
        os = states.head
        ns <- Normal(os, w)
      }
      yield (w, ns :: states)
      val updated = for {
        tup <- predict
        (w, states) = tup
        st = states.head
        _ <- Poisson(math.exp(st)).fitQ(obs)
      } yield (w, states)
      updated.resample
    }
// addTimePoint: (current: Wrapped.Prob[(Double, List[Double])], obs: Int)Wrapped.Prob[(Double, List[Double])]

By breaking the for expression into two: the first for the “predict” step and the second for the “update” (conditioning on the observation), we get two O(N) operations, which for large N is clearly much faster. We can then run the filter by folding over the observations.

  import breeze.stats.{meanAndVariance => meanVar}
// import breeze.stats.{meanAndVariance=>meanVar}

  val mod = data.foldLeft(prior)(addTimePoint(_,_)).empirical
// Conditioning on observation: 2
// Conditioning on observation: 1
// Conditioning on observation: 0
// Conditioning on observation: 2
// Conditioning on observation: 3
// Conditioning on observation: 4
// Conditioning on observation: 5
// Conditioning on observation: 4
// Conditioning on observation: 3
// Conditioning on observation: 2
// Conditioning on observation: 1
// mod: Vector[(Double, List[Double])] = Vector((0.24822528144246606,List(0.06290285371838457, 0.01633338109272575, 0.8997103339551227, 1.5058726341571411, 1.0579925693609091, 1.1616536515200064, 0.48325623593870665, 0.8457351097543767, -0.1988290999293708, -0.4787511341321954, -0.23212497417019512, -0.15327432440577277)), (1.111430233331792,List(0.6709342824443849, 0.009092797044165657, -0.13203367846117453, 0.4599952735399485, 1.3779288637042504, 0.6176597963402879, 0.6680455419800753, 0.48289163013446945, -0.5994001698510807, 0.4860969602653898, 0.10291798193078927, 1.2878325765987266)), (0.6118925941009055,List(0.6421161986636132, 0.679470360928868, 1.0552459559203342, 1.200835166087372, 1.3690372269589233, 1.8036766847282912, 0.6229883551656629, 0.14872642198313774, -0.122700856878725...

  meanVar(mod map (_._1)) // w
// res0: breeze.stats.meanAndVariance.MeanAndVariance = MeanAndVariance(0.2839184023932576,0.07391602428256917,2000)

  meanVar(mod map (_._2.reverse.head)) // initial state
// res1: breeze.stats.meanAndVariance.MeanAndVariance = MeanAndVariance(0.26057368528422714,0.4802810202354611,2000)

  meanVar(mod map (_._2.head)) // final state
// res2: breeze.stats.meanAndVariance.MeanAndVariance = MeanAndVariance(0.5448036669181697,0.28293080584600894,2000)

Summary and conclusions

Here we have just done some minor tidying up of the rather naive probability monad from the previous post to produce an SMC-based probability monad with improved performance characteristics. Again, we get an embedded probabilistic programming language “for free”. Although the language itself is very flexible, allowing us to construct more-or-less arbitrary probabilistic programs for Bayesian inference problems, we saw that a bug/feature of this particular inference algorithm is that care must be taken to avoid deep monadic binding if reasonable performance is to be obtained. In most cases this is simple to achieve by using applicative composition or by breaking up large for expressions.

There are still many issues and inefficiencies associated with this PPL. In particular, if the main intended application is to state-space models, it would make more sense to tailor the algorithms and implementations to exactly that case. OTOH, if the main concern is a generic PPL, then it would make sense to make the PPL independent of the particular inference algorithm. These are both potential topics for future posts.

Software

  • min-ppl2 – code associated with this blog post
  • Rainier – a more efficient PPL with similar syntax
  • monad-bayes – a Haskell library exploring related ideas
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First steps with monads in Scala

Introduction

In the previous post I gave a quick introduction to some important concepts in functional programming, such as HOFs, closures, currying and partial application, and hopefully gave some insight into why these concepts might be useful in the context of scientific computing. Another concept that is very important in modern functional programming is that of the monad. Monads are one of those concepts that turns out to be very simple and intuitive once you “get it”, but completely impenetrable until you do! Now, there zillions of monad tutorials out there, and I don’t think that I have anything particularly insightful to add to the discussion. That said, most of the tutorials focus on problems and examples that are some way removed from the interests of statisticians and scientific programmers. So in this post I want to try and give a very informal and intuitive introduction to the monad concept in a way that I hope will resonate with people from a more scientific computing background.

The term “monad” is borrowed from that of the corresponding concept in category theory. The connection between functional programming and category theory is strong and deep. I intend to expore this more in future posts, but for this post the connection is not important and no knowledge of category theory is assumed (or imparted!).

Functors and Monads

Maps and Functors

All of the code used in this post in contained in the first-monads directory of my blog repo. The best way to follow this post is to copy-and-paste commands one-at-a-time from this post to a Scala REPL or sbt console. Note that only the numerical linear algebra examples later in this post require any non-standard dependencies.

The map method is one of the first concepts one meets when beginning functional programming. It is a higher order method on many (immutable) collection and other container types. Let’s start by looking at how map operates on Lists.

val x = (0 to 4).toList
// x: List[Int] = List(0, 1, 2, 3, 4)
val x2 = x map { x => x * 3 }
// x2: List[Int] = List(0, 3, 6, 9, 12)
val x3 = x map { _ * 3 }
// x3: List[Int] = List(0, 3, 6, 9, 12)
val x4 = x map { _ * 0.1 }
// x4: List[Double] = List(0.0, 0.1, 0.2, 0.30000000000000004, 0.4)

The last example shows that a List[T] can be converted to a List[S] if map is passed a function of type T => S. Of course there’s nothing particularly special about List here. It works with other collection types in the same way, as the following example with (immutable) Vector illustrates:

val xv = x.toVector
// xv: Vector[Int] = Vector(0, 1, 2, 3, 4)
val xv2 = xv map { _ * 0.2 }
// xv2: scala.collection.immutable.Vector[Double] = Vector(0.0, 0.2, 0.4, 0.6000000000000001, 0.8)
val xv3 = for (xi <- xv) yield (xi * 0.2)
// xv3: scala.collection.immutable.Vector[Double] = Vector(0.0, 0.2, 0.4, 0.6000000000000001, 0.8)

Note here that the for comprehension generating xv3 is exactly equivalent to the map call generating xv2 – the for-comprehension is just syntactic sugar for the map call. The benefit of this syntax will become apparent in the more complex examples we consider later.

Many collection and other container types have a map method that behaves this way. Any parametrised type that does have a map method like this is known as a Functor. Again, the name is due to category theory, but that doesn’t matter for this post. From a Scala-programmer perspective, a functor can be thought of as a trait, in pseudo-code as

trait F[T] {
  def map(f: T => S): F[S]
}

with F representing the functor. In fact it turns out to be better to think of a functor as a type class, but that is yet another topic for a future post… Also note that to be a functor in the strict sense (from a category theory perspective), the map method must behave sensibly – that is, it must satisfy the functor laws. But again, I’m keeping things informal and intuitive for this post – there are plenty of other monad tutorials which emphasise the category theory connections.

FlatMap and Monads

Once we can map functions over elements of containers, we soon start mapping functions which themselves return values of the container type. eg. we can map a function returning a List over the elements of a List, as illustrated below.

val x5 = x map { x => List(x - 0.1, x + 0.1) }
// x5: List[List[Double]] = List(List(-0.1, 0.1), List(0.9, 1.1), List(1.9, 2.1), List(2.9, 3.1), List(3.9, 4.1))

Clearly this returns a list-of-lists. Sometimes this is what we want, but very often we actually want to flatten down to a single list so that, for example, we can subsequently map over all of the elements of the base type with a single map. We could take the list-of-lists and then flatten it, but this pattern is so common that the act of mapping and then flattening is often considered to be a basic operation, often known in Scala as flatMap. So for our toy example, we could carry out the flatMap as follows.

val x6 = x flatMap { x => List(x - 0.1, x + 0.1) }
// x6: List[Double] = List(-0.1, 0.1, 0.9, 1.1, 1.9, 2.1, 2.9, 3.1, 3.9, 4.1)

The ubiquity of this pattern becomes more apparent when we start thinking about iterating over multiple collections. For example, suppose now that we have two lists, x and y, and that we want to iterate over all pairs of elements consisting of one element from each list.

val y = (0 to 12 by 2).toList
// y: List[Int] = List(0, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12)
val xy = x flatMap { xi => y map { yi => xi * yi } }
// xy: List[Int] = List(0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 0, 4, 8, 12, 16, 20, 24, 0, 6, 12, 18, 24, 30, 36, 0, 8, 16, 24, 32, 40, 48)

This pattern of having one or more nested flatMaps followed by a final map in order to iterate over multiple collections is very common. It is exactly this pattern that the for-comprehension is syntactic sugar for. So we can re-write the above using a for-comprehension

val xy2 = for {
  xi <- x
  yi <- y
} yield (xi * yi)
// xy2: List[Int] = List(0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0, 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 0, 4, 8, 12, 16, 20, 24, 0, 6, 12, 18, 24, 30, 36, 0, 8, 16, 24, 32, 40, 48)

This for-comprehension (usually called a for-expression in Scala) has an intuitive syntax reminiscent of the kind of thing one might write in an imperative language. But it is important to remember that <- is not actually an imperative assignment. The for-comprehension really does expand to the pure-functional nested flatMap and map call given above.

Recalling that a functor is a parameterised type with a map method, we can now say that a monad is just a functor which also has a flatMap method. We can write this in pseudo-code as

trait M[T] {
  def map(f: T => S): M[S]
  def flatMap(f: T => M[S]): M[S]
}

Not all functors can have a flattening operation, so not all functors are monads, but all monads are functors. Monads are therefore more powerful than functors. Of course, more power is not always good. The principle of least power is one of the main principles of functional programming, but monads are useful for sequencing dependent computations, as illustrated by for-comprehensions. In fact, since for-comprehensions de-sugar to calls to map and flatMap, monads are precisely what are required in order to be usable in for-comprehensions. Collections supporting map and flatMap are referred to as monadic. Most Scala collections are monadic, and operating on them using map and flatMap operations, or using for-comprehensions is referred to as monadic-style. People will often refer to the monadic nature of a collection (or other container) using the word monad, eg. the “List monad”.

So far the functors and monads we have been working with have been collections, but not all monads are collections, and in fact collections are in some ways atypical examples of monads. Many monads are containers or wrappers, so it will be useful to see examples of monads which are not collections.

Option monad

One of the first monads that many people encounter is the Option monad (referred to as the Maybe monad in Haskell, and Optional in Java 8). You can think of it as being a strange kind of “collection” that can contain at most one element. So it will either contain an element or it won’t, and so can be used to wrap the result of a computation which might fail. If the computation succeeds, the value computed can be wrapped in the Option (using the type Some), and if it fails, it will not contain a value of the required type, but simply be the value None. It provides a referentially transparent and type-safe alternative to raising exceptions or returning NULL references. We can transform Options using map.

val three = Option(3)
// three: Option[Int] = Some(3)
val twelve = three map (_ * 4)
// twelve: Option[Int] = Some(12)

But when we start combining the results of multiple computations that could fail, we run into exactly the same issues as before.

val four = Option(4)
// four: Option[Int] = Some(4)
val twelveB = three map (i => four map (i * _))
// twelveB: Option[Option[Int]] = Some(Some(12))

Here we have ended up with an Option wrapped in another Option, which is not what we want. But we now know the solution, which is to replace the first map with flatMap, or better still, use a for-comprehension.

val twelveC = three flatMap (i => four map (i * _))
// twelveC: Option[Int] = Some(12)
val twelveD = for {
  i <- three
  j <- four
} yield (i * j)
// twelveD: Option[Int] = Some(12)

Again, the for-comprehension is a little bit easier to understand than the chaining of calls to flatMap and map. Note that in the for-comprehension we don’t worry about whether or not the Options actually contain values – we just concentrate on the “happy path”, where they both do, safe in the knowledge that the Option monad will take care of the failure cases for us. Two of the possible failure cases are illustrated below.

val oops: Option[Int] = None
// oops: Option[Int] = None
val oopsB = for {
  i <- three
  j <- oops
} yield (i * j)
// oopsB: Option[Int] = None
val oopsC = for {
  i <- oops
  j <- four
} yield (i * j)
// oopsC: Option[Int] = None

This is a typical benefit of code written in a monadic style. We chain together multiple computations thinking only about the canonical case and trusting the monad to take care of any additional computational context for us.

IEEE floating point and NaN

Those with a background in scientific computing are probably already familiar with the NaN value in IEEE floating point. In many regards, this value and the rules around its behaviour mean that Float and Double types in IEEE compliant languages behave as an Option monad with NaN as the None value. This is simply illustrated below.

val nan = Double.NaN
3.0 * 4.0
// res0: Double = 12.0
3.0 * nan
// res1: Double = NaN
nan * 4.0
// res2: Double = NaN

The NaN value arises naturally when computations fail. eg.

val nanB = 0.0 / 0.0
// nanB: Double = NaN

This Option-like behaviour of Float and Double means that it is quite rare to see examples of Option[Float] or Option[Double] in Scala code. But there are some disadvantages of the IEEE approach, as discussed elsewhere. Also note that this only works for Floats and Doubles, and not for other types, including, say, Int.

val nanC=0/0
// This raises a runtime exception!

Option for matrix computations

Good practical examples of scientific computations which can fail crop up frequently in numerical linear algebra, so it’s useful to see how Option can simplify code in that context. Note that the code in this section requires the Breeze library, so should be run from an sbt console using the sbt build file associated with this post.

In statistical applications, one often needs to compute the Cholesky factorisation of a square symmetric matrix. This operation is built into Breeze as the function cholesky. However the factorisation will fail if the matrix provided is not positive semi-definite, and in this case the cholesky function will throw a runtime exception. We will use the built in cholesky function to create our own function, safeChol (using a monad called Try which is closely related to the Option monad) returning an Option of a matrix rather than a matrix. This function will not throw an exception, but instead return None in the case of failure, as illustrated below.

import breeze.linalg._
def safeChol(m: DenseMatrix[Double]): Option[DenseMatrix[Double]] = scala.util.Try(cholesky(m)).toOption
val m = DenseMatrix((2.0, 1.0), (1.0, 3.0))
val c = safeChol(m)
// c: Option[breeze.linalg.DenseMatrix[Double]] =
// Some(1.4142135623730951  0.0
// 0.7071067811865475  1.5811388300841898  )

val m2 = DenseMatrix((1.0, 2.0), (2.0, 3.0))
val c2 = safeChol(m2)
// c2: Option[breeze.linalg.DenseMatrix[Double]] = None

A Cholesky factorisation is often followed by a forward or backward solve. This operation may also fail, independently of whether the Cholesky factorisation fails. There doesn’t seem to be a forward solve function directly exposed in the Breeze API, but we can easily define one, which I call dangerousForwardSolve, as it will throw an exception if it fails, just like the cholesky function. But just as for the cholesky function, we can wrap up the dangerous function into a safe one that returns an Option.

import com.github.fommil.netlib.BLAS.{getInstance => blas}
def dangerousForwardSolve(A: DenseMatrix[Double], y: DenseVector[Double]): DenseVector[Double] = {
  val yc = y.copy
  blas.dtrsv("L", "N", "N", A.cols, A.toArray, A.rows, yc.data, 1)
  yc
}
def safeForwardSolve(A: DenseMatrix[Double], y: DenseVector[Double]): Option[DenseVector[Double]] = scala.util.Try(dangerousForwardSolve(A, y)).toOption

Now we can write a very simple function which chains these two operations together, as follows.

def safeStd(A: DenseMatrix[Double], y: DenseVector[Double]): Option[DenseVector[Double]] = for {
  L <- safeChol(A)
  z <- safeForwardSolve(L, y)
} yield z

safeStd(m,DenseVector(1.0,2.0))
// res15: Option[breeze.linalg.DenseVector[Double]] = Some(DenseVector(0.7071067811865475, 0.9486832980505138))

Note how clean and simple this function is, concentrating purely on the “happy path” where both operations succeed and letting the Option monad worry about the three different cases where at least one of the operations fails.

The Future monad

Let’s finish with a monad for parallel and asynchronous computation, the Future monad. The Future monad is used for wrapping up slow computations and dispatching them to another thread for completion. The call to Future returns immediately, allowing the calling thread to continue while the additional thread processes the slow work. So at that stage, the Future will not have completed, and will not contain a value, but at some (unpredictable) time in the future it (hopefully) will (hence the name). In the following code snippet I construct two Futures that will each take at least 10 seconds to complete. On the main thread I then use a for-comprehension to chain the two computations together. Again, this will return immediately returning another Future that at some point in the future will contain the result of the derived computation. Then, purely for illustration, I force the main thread to stop and wait for that third future (f3) to complete, printing the result to the console.

import scala.concurrent.duration._
import scala.concurrent.{Future,ExecutionContext,Await}
import ExecutionContext.Implicits.global
val f1=Future{
  Thread.sleep(10000)
  1 }
val f2=Future{
  Thread.sleep(10000)
  2 }
val f3=for {
  v1 <- f1
  v2 <- f2
  } yield (v1+v2)
println(Await.result(f3,30.second))

When you paste this into your console you should observe that you get the result in 10 seconds, as f1 and f2 execute in parallel on separate threads. So the Future monad is one (of many) ways to get started with parallel and async programming in Scala.

Summary

In this post I’ve tried to give a quick informal introduction to the monad concept, and tried to use examples that will make sense to those interested in scientific and statistical computing. There’s loads more to say about monads, and there are many more commonly encountered useful monads that haven’t been covered in this post. I’ve skipped over lots of details, especially those relating to the formal definitions of functors and monads, including the laws that map and flatMap must satisfy and why. But those kinds of details can be easily picked up from other monad tutorials. Anyone interested in pursuing the formal connections may be interested in a page of links I’m collating on category theory for FP. In particular, I quite like the series of blog posts on category theory for programmers. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I also really like the book Functional Programming in Scala, which I strongly recommend to anyone who wants to improve their Scala code. In a subsequent post I’ll explain how monadic style is relevant to issues relating to the statistical analysis of big data, as exemplified in Apache Spark. It’s probably also worth mentioning that there is another kind of functor that turns out to be exceptionally useful in functional programming: the applicative functor. This is more powerful than a basic functor, but less powerful than a monad. It turns out to be useful for computations which need to be sequenced but are not sequentially dependent (context-free rather than context-sensitive), and is a little bit more general and flexible than a monad in cases where it is appropriate.