The A-Z of Programming Languages: Haskell

Simon Peyton-Jones tells us why he is most proud of Haskell's purity, type system and monads.

Simon Peyton-Jones

Simon Peyton-Jones

What do you think Haskell’s future will look like?

I don’t know. My guess is that the language, as it is used by a lot of people, will continue to evolve in a gentle sort of way.

The main thing I’m working on right now is parallelism, multicores in particular, and I’m working with some colleagues in Australia at the University of NSW. I’m working very closely with them on something called nested data parallelism.

The compiler shakes the program about a great deal and produces a program that’s easy for the computer to run. So it transforms from a program that’s easy to write into a program that’s easy to run.

We’ve got various forms of parallelism in various forms of Haskell already, but I’m not content with any of them. I think that nested data parallelism is my best hope for being able to really employ tens or hundreds of processes rather than a handful. And nested data parallelism relies absolutely on being within a functional programming language. You simply couldn’t do it in an imperative language.

And how far along that track are you? Are you having some success?

Yes, we are having some success. It’s complicated to do and there’s real research risk about it – we might not even succeed. But if you’re sure you’re going to succeed it’s probably not research! We’ve been working on this for a couple of years. We should have prototypes that other people can work on within a few months, but it will be another couple of years before we know if it really works well or not.

I am quite hopeful about it – it’s a pretty radical piece of compiler technology. It allows you to write programs in a way that’s much easier for a programmer to write then conventional parallel programming. The compiler shakes the program about a great deal and produces a program that’s easy for the computer to run. So it transforms from a program that’s easy to write into a program that’s easy to run. That’s the way to think of it. The transformation is pretty radical – there’s a lot to do and if you don’t do it right, the program will work but it will run much more slowly than it should, and the whole point is to go fast. I think it’s [purely-functional programming] the only current chance to do this radical program transformation.

In the longer term, if you ask where Haskell is going, I think it will be in ideas, and ultimately in informing other language design. I don’t know if Haskell will ever become mainstream like Java, C++ or C# are. I would be perfectly content if even the ideas in Haskell became mainstream. I think this is a more realistic goal – there are so many factors involved in widespread language adoption – ideas are ultimately more durable than implementations.

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