Haskell/Understanding monads/State

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If you have programmed in any other language before, you likely wrote some functions that "kept state". For those new to the concept, a state is one or more variables that are required to perform some computation but are not among the arguments of the relevant function. Object-oriented languages, like C++, suggest extensive use of state variables within objects in the form of member variables. Programs written in procedural languages, like C, typically use variables declared outside the current scope to keep track of state.

In Haskell, however, such techniques cannot be applied in a straightforward way; they require mutable variables, and that clashes with Haskell's functional purity. We can usually keep track of state by passing parameters from function to function or by pattern matching of various sorts, but in some cases it is appropriate to find a more general or convenient solution. We will consider the common example of how the State monad can assist us in generating pseudo-random numbers.

Pseudo-Random Numbers[edit]

Generating actual random numbers is a very complicated subject. Computer programming almost always sticks to pseudo-random numbers. They are called "pseudo" because they are not truly random. Starting from an initial state (commonly called the seed), pseudo-random number generators produce a sequence of numbers that have the appearance of being random.

Every time a pseudo-random number is requested, a global state is updated.[1] Sequences of pseudo-random numbers can be replicated exactly if the initial seed and the algorithm is known.

Implementation in Haskell[edit]

Producing a pseudo-random number in most programming languages is very simple: there is usually a function, such as C or C++'s rand(), that provides a pseudo-random value (or a truly random one, depending on the implementation). Haskell has a similar one in the System.Random module:

> :m System.Random
> :t randomIO
randomIO :: Random a => IO a
> randomIO

This function references a mutable state that is held outside Haskell and interacted with via IO, so values obtained using randomIO will be different every time.

Example: Rolling Dice[edit]

randomRIO (1,6)

Suppose we are coding a game in which at some point we need an element of chance. In real-life games that is often obtained by means of dice. So, let's create a dice-throwing function in Haskell.

We'll use the function randomR to specify an interval from which the pseudo-random values will be taken; in the case of a die, it is randomR (1,6). To make sure we get new values each time we roll, we'll use the IO version of randomR:

import Control.Monad
import System.Random

rollDiceIO :: IO (Int, Int)
rollDiceIO = liftM2 (,) (randomRIO (1,6)) (randomRIO (1,6))

That function rolls two dice. Here, liftM2 is used to make the non-monadic two-argument function (,) work within a monad. The (,) is the non-infix version of the tuple constructor. Thus, the two die rolls will be returned (in IO) as a tuple.

  1. Implement a function rollNDiceIO :: Int -> IO [Int] that, given an integer (a number of die rolls), returns a list of that number of pseudo-random integers between 1 and 6.

Getting Rid of the IO Monad[edit]

A disadvantage of randomIO is that it requires us to utilize the IO monad and store our state outside the program where we can't control what happens to it. We would prefer to only use IO when we really have a good reason to interact with the outside world.

To avoid the IO Monad, we can build a local generator. From the System.Random module, we can use the random and mkStdGen functions to generate tuples containing a pseudo-random number together with a new generator to use the next time the function is called.

> :m System.Random
> let generator = mkStdGen 0           -- "0" is our seed
> generator
1 1
> random generator :: (Int, StdGen)
(2092838931,1601120196 1655838864)

Now, we've avoided the IO Monad, but there are new problems. First and foremost, if we want to use generator to get random numbers, the obvious definition...

> let randInt = fst . random $ generator :: Int
> randInt

...is useless; it will always give back the same value, 2092838931, every time (because the same generator is always used). To solve this, we can take the second member of the tuple (i.e. the new generator) and feed it to a new call to random:

> let (randInt, generator') = random generator :: (Int, StdGen)
> randInt                            -- Same value
> random generator' :: (Int, StdGen) -- Using new generator' returned from “random generator”
(-2143208520,439883729 1872071452)

Of course, this is clumsy and tedious. We need to keep creating new functions for new calls, and we're stuck with the fuss of having to carefully pass the generator around.

Dice without IO[edit]

We can re-do our dice throw with our new approach:

> randomR (1,6) (mkStdGen 0)
(6, 40014 40692)

This tuple combines the result of throwing a single die with a new generator number. A simple implementation for throwing two dice is then:

clumsyRollDice :: (Int, Int)
clumsyRollDice = (n, m)
        (n, g) = randomR (1,6) (mkStdGen 0)
        (m, _) = randomR (1,6) g
  1. Implement a function rollDice :: StdGen -> ((Int, Int), StdGen) that, given a generator, return a tuple with our random numbers as first element and the last generator as the second.

The implementation of clumsyRollDice works as a one-off, but we have to manually write the passing of generator g from one where clause to the other. This approach will become increasingly cumbersome if we want to produce larger sets of pseudo-random numbers. It is also error-prone: what if we pass one of the middle generators to the wrong line in the where clause?

What we really need is a way to automate the extraction of the second member of the tuple (i.e. the new generator) and feed it to a new call to random. This is where the State monad comes into the picture.

Introducing State[edit]


In this chapter we will use the state monad provided by the module Control.Monad.Trans.State of the transformers package. By reading Haskell code in the wild, you will soon meet Control.Monad.State, a module of the closely related mtl package. The differences between these two modules need not concern us at the moment; everything we discuss here also applies to the mtl variant.

The Haskell type State describes functions that consume a state and produce a tuple that contains a result along with the new state after the result has been extracted.

The state function is wrapped by a data type definition which comes along with a runState accessor so that pattern matching becomes unnecessary. For our current purposes, the State type might be defined as:

newtype State s a = State { runState :: s -> (a, s) }

Here, s is the type of the state, and a the type of the produced result. Calling our type State is arguably a bit of a misnomer because the wrapped value is not the state itself but a state processor.


Notice that we defined the data type with the newtype keyword, rather than the usual data. newtype can be used only for types with just one constructor and just one field. It ensures that the trivial wrapping and unwrapping of the single field is eliminated by the compiler. For that reason, simple wrapper types such as State are usually defined with newtype. Would defining a synonym with type be enough in such cases? Not really, because type does not allow us to define instances for the new data type, which is what we are about to do...

Where did the State constructor go?[edit]

When you start using Control.Monad.Trans.State, you will quickly notice there is no State constructor available. That was the reason for the "for our current purposes" caveat a few paragraphs, when introducing the type. The transformers package implements the State type in a somewhat different way. The differences do not affect how we use or understand State; except that, instead of a State constructor, Control.Monad.Trans.State does not exports a state function,

state :: (s -> (a, s)) -> State s a

which does the same job. As for why the implementation is not the obvious one we presented above, we will get back to that a few chapters down the road.

Instantiating the Monad[edit]

In contrast to the monads we have met thus far, State has two type parameters. To define a Monad, we need to combine State with a second parameter.

instance Monad (State s) where

So, there are many different State monads including State String, State Int, State SomeLargeDataStructure, and so on…

The return function is implemented as:

return :: a -> State s a
return x = state ( \ st -> (x, st) )

In words, giving a value to return produces a function wrapped in the State constructor. The function takes a state value, and returns it unchanged as the second member of a tuple, together with the specified result value.

Binding is a bit intricate:

(>>=) :: State s a -> (a -> State s b) -> State s b
processor >>= processorGenerator = state $ \ st -> 
                                   let (x, st') = runState processor st
                                   in runState (processorGenerator x) st'

(>>=) is given a state processor and a function that can generate another processor using the result of the first one. The two processors are combined to obtain a function that takes the initial state, and returns the second result and state (i.e. after the second function has processed them).

Loose schematic representation of how bind creates a new state processor (pAB) from the given state processor (pA) and the given generator (f). s1, s2 and s3 are actual states. v2 and v3 are values. pA, pB and pAB are state processors. The diagram ignores wrapping and unwrapping of the functions in the State wrapper.

The diagram shows this schematically, for a slightly different, but equivalent form of the ">>=" (bind) function, given below (where wpA and wpAB are wrapped versions of pA and pAB).

-- pAB = s1 --> pA --> (v2,s2) --> pB --> (v3,s3)        
wpA >>= f = wpAB          
    where wpAB = state $ \s1 -> let pA = runState wpA
                                    (v2, s2) = pA s1
                                    pB = runState $ f v2
                                    (v3,s3) = pB s2
                                in  (v3,s3)

Setting and Accessing the State[edit]

The monad instantiation allows us to manipulate various state processors, but you may at this point wonder where exactly the original state comes from in the first place. State s is also an instance of the MonadState class, which provides two additional functions:

put newState = state $ \_ -> ((), newState)

Given a state, this function will generate a state processor. The processor's input will be disregarded, and the output will be a tuple carrying the state we provided. Since we do not care about the result (we are discarding the input, after all), the first element of the tuple will be "null".[2]

The specular operation reads the state. This is accomplished by get:

get = state $ \st -> (st, st)

The resulting state processor produces the input st in both positions of the output tuple (i.e. both as a result and as a state) so that it may be bound to other processors.

Getting Values and State[edit]

From the definition of State, we know that runState is an accessor to apply to a State a b value to get the state-processing function. That function, given an initial state, will return the extracted value and the new state.

Other similar functions are evalState and execState. Given a State a b and an initial state, the function evalState will return the extracted value only, whereas execState will return only the new state.

evalState :: State s a -> s -> a
evalState processor st = fst ( runState processor st )

execState :: State s a -> s -> s
execState processor st = snd ( runState processor st )

Dice and state[edit]

Let's use the State monad for our dice throw examples.

To avoid the confusion with "State" and "state processor", we'll use a type synonym:

import Control.Monad.Trans.State
import System.Random

type GeneratorState = State StdGen

So, GeneratorState Int is in essence a StdGen -> (Int, StdGen) function and is a processor of the generator state. The generator state itself is produced by the mkStdGen function. Note that GeneratorState does not specify what type of values we are going to extract, only the type of the state.

We can now produce a function that, given a StdGen generator, outputs a number between 1 and 6.

rollDie :: GeneratorState Int
rollDie = do generator <- get
             let (value, newGenerator) = randomR (1,6) generator
             put newGenerator
             return value

Let's go through each of the steps:

  1. First, we take out the pseudo-random generator with <- in conjunction with get. get overwrites the monadic value (The 'a' in 'm a') with the state, binding the generator to the state. (If in doubt, recall the definition of get and >>= above).
  2. Then, we use the randomR function to produce an integer between 1 and 6 using the generator we took; we also store the new generator graciously returned by randomR.
  3. We then set the state to be the newGenerator using the put function, so that the next call will use a different pseudo-random generator;
  4. Finally, we inject the result into the GeneratorState monad using return.

We can finally use our monadic die:

> evalState rollDie (mkStdGen 0)

Why have we involved monads and built such an intricate framework only to do exactly what fst $ randomR (1,6) already does? Well, consider the following function:

rollDice :: GeneratorState (Int, Int)
rollDice = liftM2 (,) rollDie rollDie

We obtain a function producing two pseudo-random numbers in a tuple. Note that these are in general different:

> evalState rollDice (mkStdGen 666)

Under the hood, the monads are passing state to each other. It was previously very clunky using randomR (1,6) because we had to pass state manually. Now, the monad is taking care of that for us. Assuming we know how to use the lifting functions, constructing intricate combinations of pseudo-random numbers (tuples, lists, whatever) has suddenly become much easier.

  1. Similarly to what was done for rollNDiceIO, implement a function rollNDice :: Int -> GeneratorState [Int] that, given an integer, returns a list with that number of pseudo-random integers between 1 and 6.

Pseudo-random values of different types[edit]

Until now, we considered only Int as the type of the produced pseudo-random number. However, already when we defined the GeneratorState monad, we saw that it did not specify anything about the type of the returned value. In fact, there is one implicit assumption: that we can produce values of such a type with a call to random.

The Random class (capitalized) includes default implementations for functions generating Int, Char, Integer, Bool, Double and Float, so you can immediately generate any of those.

Because GeneratorState is "agnostic" in regard to the type of the pseudo-random value it produces, we can write a similarly "agnostic" function (analogous to rollDie) that provides a pseudo-random value of unspecified type (as long as it is an instance of Random):

getRandom :: Random a => GeneratorState a
getRandom = do generator <- get
               let (value, newGenerator) = random generator
               put newGenerator
               return value

Compared to rollDie, this function does not specify the Int type in its signature and uses random instead of randomR; otherwise, it is just the same. getRandom can be used for any instance of Random:

> evalState getRandom (mkStdGen 0) :: Bool
> evalState getRandom (mkStdGen 0) :: Char
> evalState getRandom (mkStdGen 0) :: Double
> evalState getRandom (mkStdGen 0) :: Integer

Indeed, it becomes quite easy to conjure all these at once:

allTypes :: GeneratorState (Int, Float, Char, Integer, Double, Bool, Int)
allTypes = liftM (,,,,,,) getRandom
                     `ap` getRandom
                     `ap` getRandom
                     `ap` getRandom
                     `ap` getRandom
                     `ap` getRandom
                     `ap` getRandom

Here we are forced to used the ap function, defined in Control.Monad, since there exists no liftM7 (the standard libraries only go to liftM5). As you can see, ap fits multiple computations into an application of the (lifted) n-element-tuple constructor (in this case the 7-item (,,,,,,)). To understand ap further, look at its signature:

ap :: (Monad m) => m (a -> b) -> m a -> m b

Remember then that type a in Haskell can be a function as well as a value, and compare to:

>:type liftM (,,,,,,) getRandom
liftM (,,,,,) getRandom :: (Random a1) =>
                          State StdGen (b -> c -> d -> e -> f -> (a1, b, c, d, e, f))

The monad m is obviously State StdGen (which we "nicknamed" GeneratorState), while ap's first argument is function b -> c -> d -> e -> f -> (a1, b, c, d, e, f). Applying ap over and over (in this case 6 times), we finally get to the point where b is an actual value (in our case, a 7-element tuple), not another function. To sum it up, ap applies a function-in-a-monad to a monadic value (compare with liftM, which applies a function not in a monad to a monadic value).

So much for understanding the implementation. Function allTypes provides pseudo-random values for all default instances of Random; an additional Int is inserted at the end to prove that the generator is not the same, as the two Ints will be different.

> evalState allTypes (mkStdGen 0)
  1. If you are not convinced that State is worth using, try to implement a function equivalent to evalState allTypes without making use of monads, i.e. with an approach similar to clumsyRollDice above.


  1. There are also other ways to seed a pseudo-random number generator without using a global state for the program. For example, a program could have an algorithm that starts with a seed from checking the current date and time (assuming the computer's clock is functioning, this will never be a repeated value).
  2. The technical term for the type of () is unit.