tkersey / swift-conway-comonad

Conway's game of life in Swift using Comonads and Representable Functors.

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Conway's Game of Life with Comonads and Representable Functors

This is based primarily on Chris Penner's article, in which he implements a similar solution in Haskell. There were a few things that were unclear to me, so I tried to recreate his solution from scratch.

I also looked at the Haskell source for RepresentableStore from Edward Kmett's adjunctions package. After squinting at it enough, it started to become useful.

I like to build these things in Swift because the extra syntax, ceremony, and even type-system limitations often elucidate the shape of the problem. Haskell is often a little too subtle and magical for me to see what's happening at first.

These notes here are to help me remember what I did. Maybe they are useful to you too.

Quick start:

$ swift run --configuration release

Comonadic Life

To set the stage, we want to capture the essence of the Game of Life in simple code. There are two parts to the definition of the game. The first step is to define neighboring positions, which are orthogonally and diagonally adjacent locations to a point on some grid (also known as the Moore neighbourhood).

let adjacent = [
    (-1,-1), (0,-1), (1,-1),
    (-1, 0),         (1, 0),
    (-1, 1), (0, 1), (1, 1)

func neighbourCoords(_ c: Coord) -> [Coord] { { $0 + c }

Here, Coord is a struct equivalent to a 2-tuple (Int, Int).

We would like to describe a step function for an individual point. Something like following where some code has been elided and replaced with ???:

// The `Grid` we take as input has the notion of the current position under
// consideration, i.e., a focus.
func conway(grid: Grid) -> Bool {
    let alive = grid.??? // A boolean indicating if the current point is alive or dead
    let liveCount = grid.??? // A count of the neighbors that are alive

    return alive
        ? liveCount == 2 || liveCount == 3
        : liveCount == 3

It may seem strange to include the focus point in the Grid type. We could have equivalently made this a function conway(grid: Grid, focus: Coord) -> Bool. But we'll see that a pointed type (a type which "points" at something or has a focus) is a useful property.

This is the type of problem that comonads are ideally suited for representing. If Grid is a Store comonad then our implementation is now:

func conway(grid: Grid) -> Bool {
    // Comonads allow us to extract our current focus
    let alive = grid.extract

    // The Store comonad allows us to look at other positions relative to
    // the current position via `experiment :: (key -> [key]) -> [a]`.
    let liveCount = grid
        .reduce(0) { $0 + $1.intValue }

    return alive
        ? liveCount == 2 || liveCount == 3
        : liveCount == 3

Note that I've taken some liberties and made experiment operate over lists rather than just any arbitrary type constructor (due to lack of higher kinded types).

With the above complete, our step function is just the extend method of a comonad. Comonadic extend is the dual of monadic bind. This takes a function w a -> b and applies it to w a to produce an w b. In this case, we want: Grid -> (Grid -> Bool) -> Grid (remembering that each grid is focused on some point.)

func step(_ grid: Grid) -> Grid {


The Store<S,A> comonad is the first thing you reach for. The Store<S,A> comonad is the categorical dual of the State<S,A> monad. Store has a focus on the current position and a mapping for any position to a value. The implementation is fairly straightforward.

struct Store<S, A> {
    let peek: (S) -> A
    let pos: S

    func seek(_ s: S) -> Store { duplicate.peek(s) }

    func experiment(_ f: (S) -> [S]) -> [A] {

// Comonad
extension Store {
    var extract: A { peek(pos) }

    func extend<B>(
        _ f: @escaping (Store<S,A>) -> B
    ) -> Store<S,B> {
            peek: { f(Store(peek: self.peek, pos: $0)) },
            pos: self.pos)

    var duplicate: Store<S, Store<S,A>> {
        extend { $0 }

The most complicated point of understanding here (aside from the level of abstraction) is the intuition around comonadic duplicate (i.e., cojoin) which is needed for the seek operation.

extend also has a complicated looking implementation, and its lazy computation will cause us some headaches.

For the remaining examples, we will assume an initialState of type Set<Coord>. Using Store<S,A> we get the following binding. makeGrid is just a helper to show how to construct a Grid from such an initial state.

typealias Grid = Store<Coord,Bool>

func makeGrid(_ state: Set<Coord>) -> Grid {
    Grid(peek: state.contains, pos: Coord(0,0))

What we find (and as everyone notices right away) is that to compute any next frame, we must first recompute every preceding frame. This is a consequence of that lazy computation through extend which builds a large web of chained functions, upon which we add an additional layer each time step.

Memoized Store

I found several solutions that add in some ad hoc memoization, such as in the article Life Is A Comonad by Eli Jordan. (Note, the linked source code in that article also shows an alternate RepresentableStore version.) These rely on some garbage collection or smartness around weak references to avoid memory leaks.

Adding memoization to our Store<S,A> is a matter of providing a memoize function:

func memoize<A: Hashable, B>(_ f: @escaping (A) -> B) -> (A) -> B {
    var cache: [A: B] = [:]
    return { a in
        guard let result = cache[a] else {
            let x = f(a)
            cache[a] = x
            return x
        return result

With this we can provide a new MemoStore<S,A>. It is identical to Store<S,A> in every way except that it's extend method uses this memoization function.

    func extend<B>(
        _ f: @escaping (MemoStore<S,A>) -> B
    ) -> MemoStore<S,B> {
            peek: memoize {
                    peek: self.peek,
                    pos: $0))
            pos: self.pos)

This will leak like crazy. I didn't bother trying to address that because there is a better way. (Though if you have an easy fix, please send it my way!)

To use it, we switch out our Grid and makeGrid implementation.

typealias Grid = MemoStore<Coord,Bool>

func makeGrid(_ state: Set<Coord>) -> Grid {
    Grid(peek: state.contains, pos: Coord(0,0))

We can confirm this runs much faster, but with unbounded memory growth.


I had a hard time getting my head around representable functors. Once I had them understood, it was then difficult for me to see what a RepresentableStore should be.

To help keep the types straight, I started with a protocol.

protocol Representable {
    associatedtype Rep
    associatedtype Arg

    static func tabulate(_ t: (Rep) -> Arg) -> Self

    func index(_ r: Rep) -> Arg

A simple example of a representable functor is a Pair<A> that contains two values:

struct Pair<A> {
    let fst: A
    let snd: A

extension Pair: Representable {
    static func tabulate(_ f: (Bool) -> A) -> Pair {
        Pair(fst: f(true), snd: f(false))

    func index(_ r: Bool) -> A {
        r ? self.fst : self.snd

It's easy to convince yourself that a function Bool -> A can be used to create an instance of Pair<A>. That's all tabulate does. Similarly, given a Pair<A>, and a Bool, you can see that you can use the Bool to index into the Pair type and pluck out a value.

As literature states, "a Functor f is representable if tabulate and index witness an isomorphism to (->) x". We can demonstrate that:

extension Pair: Equatable where A: Equatable {}

let p = Pair(fst: "hot", snd: "cold")
p == Pair.tabulate(p.index)


In the Game of Life, our representable functor is a grid. It has to be bounded in dimension or else we won't know how to implement tabulate in finite time. (Note the global constant BOUND in some of the code.)

BoundedGrid<A> is essentially a two dimensional array like [[A]]. Note it could also be a dictionary [Coord: A] (simplifiable to Set<Coord> for the case of BoundedGrid<Bool>), a quadtree, or any number of alternatives. I chose to use a one dimensional array and some indexing math. The important part here is the signatures of index and tabulate.

struct BoundedGrid<A>: Representable {
    let data: [A]

    func index(_ c: Coord) -> A {
        let x = mod(c.x, BOUND.x)
        let y = mod(c.y, BOUND.y)
        return data[y*BOUND.x+x]

    static func tabulate(
        _ desc: (Coord) -> A
    ) -> BoundedGrid {
        var data: [A] = []
        for y in 0..<BOUND.y {
            for x in 0..<BOUND.x {
                data.append(desc(Coord(x, y)))
        return BoundedGrid(data: data)

index simply indexes into the grid. tabulate constructs a new grid using a function Coord -> A. This latter part might seem inefficient, but note how it is used. tabulate is called by duplicate, which is called by extend. We invoke extend with the argument conway (our step logic). So we are just composing the conway function over each re-focused grid. There is some wastage here that is worth discussing later.

Now that we have a representable functor in the form of BoundedGrid<A> we can construct a RepresentableStore<F<_>, S,A> that uses it. Without higher kinded types, we can't actually define this type generically. We'll create a concrete instance for the types we care about.

// a.k.a., RepresentableStore<BoundedGrid<_>, Coord, A>
struct FocusedBoundedGrid<A> {
    let grid: BoundedGrid<A>
    let pos: Coord

    func peek(_ c: Coord) -> A {

    func seek(_ c: Coord) -> Self { duplicate.peek(c) }

    func experiment(_ f: (Coord) -> [Coord]) -> [A] {

Notice that peek is no longer user provided. It is now is implemented via the underlying representable functor's index method.

FocusedBoundedGrid has a straightforward functor instance which we will need.

extension FocusedBoundedGrid {
    func map<B>(
        _ f: @escaping (A) -> B
    ) -> FocusedBoundedGrid<B> {
            pos: self.pos

Finally we can build our comonad instance.

extension FocusedBoundedGrid {
    var extract: A { peek(pos) }

    func extend<B>(
        _ f: @escaping (FocusedBoundedGrid<A>) -> B
    ) -> FocusedBoundedGrid<B> {

    var duplicate: FocusedBoundedGrid<FocusedBoundedGrid<A>> {
            grid: BoundedGrid.tabulate {
                    grid: self.grid,
                    pos: $0)
            pos: self.pos)

Of primary interest here is how duplicate works. It uses the underlying representable functor's tabulate method to build out the grid with all possible different focus points. This is also where we construct a lot of redundant BoundedGrid instances. (Using better copy-on-write patterns or persistent data structures might help here.) This is also how we get "memoization for free". By invoking tabulate, we are constructing a new BoundedGrid, thereby avoiding all recompute we saw with the original Store.

We can now switch out our implementation.

typealias Grid = FocusedBoundedGrid<Bool>

func makeGrid(_ state: Set<Coord>) -> Grid {
        grid: BoundedGrid.tabulate(state.contains),
        pos: Coord(0,0))

This version has great performance and flat memory consumption. For all of the pointless data copying it does, it's surprisingly fast. That's where this exploration ends. I'm left with a few questions for another day.


  • Can we get some easy performance wins with lazy collections / iterators?
  • Can we get some easy wins with some persistent data structures?
  • Can I use the Reader monad to read in the bounds
  • Can I use the State or IO monad to free myself from the information constraints of tabulate?
  • This problem is trivially made data parallel. What would that look like?


Conway's game of life in Swift using Comonads and Representable Functors.

License:MIT License


Language:Swift 100.0%