Concepts as door-opening robots

I’m at CppCon this week. It’s great. You should be here too. (If you are — come say hello in person! I hope you’re having fun so far.)

The opening keynote was from Bjarne Stroustrup, advertising C++2a Concepts. I won’t try to characterize it too much, because I’m sure I’d inadvertently misrepresent his views on the subject, but I’d say that it seems like he’s a big fan of the notion of concepts and generic algorithms (just like I am), and he is excited that C++2a is finally getting some syntax to match those notions, so that we can teach the notions more easily.

He gave some guidelines for the usage of Concepts. One guideline was “Beware concepts with names ending in -able.” concept Addable is probably just as bad as concept HasPlus. (Pay no attention to the Sortable and Mergeable behind the curtain!) Concepts should represent full-fledged and well-rounded notions such as Numeric (which may require definitions for +, -, *, /, and so on). Bjarne raised and grappled-slightly-with the question of whether this would inconvenience people with “addable but not multipliable” types.

It occurs to me to tie together the question of “granularity of concepts” with the question of “semantic constraints.” When we say concept HasPlus is a bad concept, part of the reason is that we don’t have a full-fledged model of what “having +” really means. std::string has + but it’s not commutative. Did we mean for + to be commutative? (Numeric types presumably have commutative +. Although that might not even be true, for things like ordinal numbers.)

I’m a big fan of Don Norman’s book The Design of Everyday Things. The takeaway from that book is that everyday objects present certain visual or tactile appearances that connote behaviors — what Norman calls affordances. A door whose handle is a long vertical bar affords pulling-to-open. A long horizontal bar affords pushing. Have you ever encountered a door with a long horizontal bar that seemed like a “push” but was actually a “pull”? Wasn’t it frustrating?

So suppose I’m designing a robot to roll around and go through doors in a human environment. I need the robot to be able to open doors. I’d probably make it look at the shape of the door handle, right? If the handle is a horizontal bar or a flat plate, the robot would try pushing, because a horizontal bar or flat plate affords pushing-to-open. If the robot encountered a door with a horizontal bar that actually needs to be pulled, then the robot might just get really confused and not be able to proceed. This should sound completely plausible to the engineers in the audience, right?

Now, suppose field testing discovers that my robot is spending a lot of time pushing on flat plates that aren’t actually part of doors at all. I might need to tweak its door-detecting heuristic by adding some more constraints: maybe it should try pushing only on six-by-three-foot rectangles made of wood, for example.

Now switch modes. You’re not a robot designer anymore; you’re a door designer. You want to design a door for your office building. If you want my robot to be able to open it, you’d darn well better make your door a six-by-three-foot wooden rectangle!

A generic algorithm — say, template<Door D> void open(D& d) — is like that robot. The robot designer may well overconstrain their robot’s notion of “door-ness” so that it does not even attempt to open many things that are in fact doors.

template<class D>
concept Door =
    (handle_of<D>::is_flat_plate || handle_of<D>::is_horizontal_bar) &&
    width_of<D> == std::feet(3) &&
    height_of<D> == std::feet(6);

inline struct Robot {
    template<Door D> void open(D&);
} robot;

template<class T> constexpr auto is_openable(T&&, ...)
    { return false; }
template<class T> constexpr auto is_openable(T& d)
    -> decltype(, true) { return true; }

Now, on the one hand, this is awkward and inconvenient for library users, because it generates a lot of false negatives:

my::triangular_door t;;   // ERROR: Door<triangular_door> is false

static_assert(not is_openable(t));  // SURPRISING

But the alternative would be worse: the alternative would be lots of false positives! Suppose we removed the silly extra requirements from our Door and just used the very basics: flat plate or horizontal bar, no size check. Then

my::electrical_outlet o;;   // CASCADE OF ERRORS: Door<electrical_outlet> is true
                 // but it is not actually openable

static_assert(is_openable(o));  // SURPRISING and possibly DEADLY

When the visual appearance of an everyday object does not match its actual behavior — when it seems visually to afford some action that it does not actually support — our robot gets confused. Erring on the side of caution — not trying to open anything that doesn’t appear to be a six-by-three rectangle — is a good survival strategy.

When the syntactic appearance of a C++ type does not match its semantic behavior — when it seems syntactically to afford some invariant that it does not actually provide — our generic algorithms get confused. Erring on the side of caution — not trying to accumulate anything that doesn’t syntactically provide an operator/, unary operator-, and so on — is a good survival strategy.

Posted 2018-09-24