Abstraction-Safe Effect Handlers via Tunneling
Yizhou Zhang and Andrew C. Myers

January 2019
Lisbon, Portugal


Algebraic effect handlers offer a unified approach to expressing control-flow transfer idioms such as exceptions, iteration, and async/await. Unfortunately, previous attempts to make these handlers type-safe have failed to support the fundamental principle of modular reasoning for higher-order abstractions. We demonstrate that abstraction-safe algebraic effect handlers are possible by giving them a new semantics. The key insight is that code should only handle effects it is aware of. In our approach, the type system guarantees all effects are handled, but it is impossible for higher-order, effect-polymorphic code to accidentally handle effects raised by functions passed in; such effects tunnel through the higher-order, calling procedures polymorphic to them. By contrast, the possibility of accidental handling threatens previous designs for algebraic effect handlers. We prove that our design is not only type-safe, but also abstraction-safe. Using a logical-relations model that we prove sound with respect to contextual equivalence, we derive previously unattainable program equivalence results. Our mechanism offers a viable approach for future language designs aiming for effect handlers with strong abstraction guarantees.

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