Capability Subtyping

Subtyping is about substitutability. That is, if we need to supply a certain type, what other types can we substitute instead? Reference capabilities factor into this.

Simple substitution

First, let's cover substitution without worrying about ephemeral types (^) or alias types (!). The <: symbol means "is a subtype of" or alternatively "can be substituted for".

  • iso <: trn. An iso is read and write unique, and a trn is just write unique, so it's safe to substitute an iso for a trn.
  • trn <: ref. A trn is mutable and also write unique. A ref is mutable, but makes no uniqueness guarantees. It's safe to substitute a trn for a ref.
  • trn <: val. This one is interesting. A trn is write unique and a val is globally immutable, so why is it safe to substitute a trn for a val? The key is that, in order to do so, you have to give up the trn you have. If you give up the only variable that can write to an object, you know that no variable can write to it. That means it's safe to consider it globally immutable.
  • ref <: box. A ref guarantees no other actor can read from or write to the object. A box just guarantees no other actor can write to the object, so it's safe to substitute a ref for a box.
  • val <: box. A val guarantees no actor, not even this one, can write to the object. A box just guarantees no other actor can write to the object, so it's safe to substitute a val for a box.
  • box <: tag. A box guarantees no other actor can write to the object, and a tag makes no guarantees at all, so it's safe to substitute a box for a tag.

Subtyping is transitive. That means that since iso <: trn and trn <: ref and ref <: box, we also get iso <: box.

Aliased substitution

Now let's consider what happens when we have an alias of a reference capability. For example, if we have some iso and we alias it (without doing a consume or a destructive read), the type we get is iso!, not iso.

  • iso! <: tag. This is a pretty big change. Instead of being a subtype of everything like iso, the only thing an iso! is a subtype of is tag. This is because the iso still exists, and is still read and write unique. Any alias can neither read from nor write to the object. That means an iso! can only be a subtype of tag.
  • trn! <: box. This is a change too, but not as big a change. Since trn is only write unique, it's ok for aliases to read from the object, but it's not ok for aliases to write to the object. That means we could have box or val aliases - except val guarantees that no alias can write the the object! Since our trn still exists, and can write to the object, a val alias would break the guarantees that val makes. So a trn! can only be a subtype of box (and, transitively, tag as well).
  • ref! <: ref. Since a ref only guarantees that other actors can neither read from nor write to the object, it's ok to make more ref aliases within the same actor.
  • val! <: val. Since a val only guarantees that no actor can write to the object, its ok to make more val aliases, since they can't write to the object either.
  • box! <: box. A box only guarantees that other actors can't write to the object. Both val and ref make that guarantee too, so why can box only alias as box? It's because we can't make more guarantees when we alias something. That means box can only alias as box.
  • tag! <: tag. A tag doesn't make any guarantees at all. Just like with a box, we can't make more guarantees when we make a new alias, so a tag can only alias as a tag.

Ephemeral substitution

The last case to consider is when we have an ephemeral reference capability. For example, if we have some iso and we consume it or do a destructive read, the type we get is iso^, not iso.

  • iso^ <: iso. This is pretty simple. When we give an iso^ a name, by assigning it to something or passing it as an argument to a method, it loses the ^ and becomes a plain old iso. We know we gave up our previous iso, so it's safe to have a new one.
  • trn^ <: trn. This works exactly like iso^. The guarantee is weaker (write uniqueness instead of read and write uniqueness), but it works the same way.
  • ref^ <: ref^ and ref^ <: ref and ref <: ref^. Here, we have another case. Not only is a ref^ a subtype of a ref, it's also a subtype of a ref^. What's going on here? The reason is that an ephemeral reference capability is a way of saying "a reference capability that, when aliased, results in the base reference capability". Since a ref can be aliased as a ref, that means ref and ref^ are completely interchangeable.
  • val^, box^, tag^. These all work the same way as ref, that is, they are interchangeable with the base reference capability. It's for the same reason: all of these reference capabilities can be aliased as themselves.

Why do ref^, val^, box^, and tag^ exist if they are interchangeable with their base reference capabilities? It's for two reasons: reference capability recovery and generics. We'll cover both of those later.

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