tl;dr: We present a multiple dispatch system for Python. We discuss issues that arise from multiple dispatch. We try to allay fears related to these issues.

Dispatch

Abstract operations like addition, +, have several different implementations. We choose which implementation to use based on the type of the inputs. For example:

• The addition of two strings results in concatenation
• The addition of two user defined objects results in __add__ or __radd__ calls

The selection of implementation (e.g. arithmetic add) based on input types (e.g. integers) is called dispatch.

As an object oriented language, Python dispatches on the type of the first argument, self. We call this single dispatch because it makes a selection from a single input.

Dispatching on multiple input types

The standard way to do multiple dispatch in Python is to branch on the type of other inputs within __add__

Or to raise a NotImplementedError, which then tells Python to try other.__radd__(self)

Both of these solutions are complex. It gets worse when you consider operations with more than two inputs.

Dispatching on all types with decorators

The non-standard approach to multiple dispatch in Python is to decorate functions with type signatures:

As we define new implementations of add decorated with new types we add to a collection of {type-signature: function} associations. When we call add on a set of arguments the dispatch system performs dynamic type checking to find the right function and then executes that function on those arguments. This is exactly what happens in the object oriented solution, but now we dispatch on all of the arguments rather than only the first.

The example above uses the multipledispatch library found here. It’s also installable from PyPI with the following command:

pip install multipledispatch


Dispatch Supports Interactions Between Projects

Multiple dispatch allows distinct types to interact over a shared abstract interface. For example, there currently exist several array programming solutions in Python, each vying for the title “numpy of the future”. Multiple dispatch supports efforts to interact between these disparate solutions.

For example most array programming solutions implement a dot-product operation, dot. Using multiple dispatch we could implement interactions like the following:

These interactions don’t need to reside in each project. Multiple dispatch separates interaction code from core code. This opens and democratizes interaction, for better or for worse.

Issues

Programmers experienced with multiple dispatch know that it introduces the following problems:

1. Dynamic multiple dispatch costs performance
2. It is possible to generate two type signatures that are equally valid for a given set of inputs.
3. Because we collect functions around their name we ignore namespaces. Different projects that reuse the same names may conflict.

Lets handle these in order

1. Performance

Each call to a dispatched function requires a dynamic check of the types of the inputs against the type signatures of the known implementations at runtime. This takes time.

Using dictionaries, some static analysis, and caching we can push this cost down to a couple of microseconds. While this is slower than straight Python it’s not that much slower. Don’t forget that objects do this dynamic checking too.

2. Conflicting type signatures raise ambiguities

Consider the following two functions

What output do we expect, 1 or 2? In this case we have defined a set of implementations that contain an ambiguity. Due to inheritance both type signatures (object, float) and (float, object) satisfy our argument types, (float, float) equally well. It’s ambiguous which implementation of f we is most valid. In large projects that depend on multiple dispatch, this behavior can create bugs that are difficult to track down.

Fortunately, we detect this problem statically at function definition time. Inheritance of each of the type inputs induces a graph on all of the signatures. By looking for uncovered cycles within this graph we can identify ambiguous collections of signatures and report them before the code is run. We can suggest new signatures to cover the ambiguity:

>>> @dispatch(float, object)
... def f(x, y):
...     return 2

multipledispatch/core.py:52: AmbiguityWarning:

Ambiguities exist in dispatched function f

The following signatures may result in ambiguous behavior:
[float, object], [object, float]

@dispatch(float, float)
def f(...)


3. Collecting functions by name ignores namespaces

Different projects implement functions with the same name all the time. This can cause some confusion. Normally Python handles this problem with namespaces. Namespaces help to distinguish between your_library.foo and my_library.foo. Namespaces are one heck of a good idea.

Unfortunately multiple dispatch systems often group functions by their name and ignore namespaces completely. Can an ecosystem exist when several projects use multiple dispatch without coordination? Coordinating (name, type-signature) pairs to avoid conflicts between projects would inhibit the growth of the ecosystem. Do multiple dispatch systems like what is described above make this necessary?

My opinion: Yes, they do, but this coordination is easy - we do it already.

Python already has globally dispatched operations. Consider +. People add implementations to + every day. The + operation isn’t in a namespace, it doesn’t need to be imported, it just dispatches based on the data given to it. And yet no problems arise as long as no one monkey patches. That is, as long as people only define methods for types that they manage then globally distributed dispatching systems are safe.

Of course, dispatch systems like what we show above make monkey-patching of types easier. For example in writing this post I defined add on (object, object) to mean string concatenation, clearly a pretty bold decision.

This was bad, as bad as is monkey patching. My opinion is that globally distributed dispatch is safe if we do not make broad claims like the example above.

Background

There have been several attempts at multiple dispatch in Python. I’ll list a few below:

Special thanks to Erik Welch for pointing me to a number of excellent Python references.

The quickly growing Julia language handles multiple dispatch wonderfully. Julia’s solution was what inspired me to play with this idea.

And finally here is a link to the source code for my implementation of multipledispatch