Taming Wildcards in Java's Type System

PLDI 2011: [pdf] [bibtex] [pptx] [mp4]

Authors: Ross Tate, Alan Leung, and Sorin Lerner

Technical Report: [pdf] [bibtex]


Wildcards have become an important part of Java's type system since their introduction 7 years ago. Yet there are still many open problems with Java's wildcards. For example, there are no known sound and complete algorithms for subtyping (and consequently type checking) Java wildcards, and in fact subtyping is suspected to be undecidable because wildcards are a form of bounded existential types. Furthermore, some Java types with wildcards have no joins, making inference of type arguments for generic methods particularly difficult. Although there has been progress on these fronts, we have identified significant shortcomings of the current state of the art, along with new problems that have not been addressed.

In this paper, we illustrate how these shortcomings reflect the subtle complexity of the problem domain, and then present major improvements to the current algorithms for wildcards by making slight restrictions on the usage of wildcards. Our survey of existing Java programs suggests that realistic code should already satisfy our restrictions without any modifications. We present a simple algorithm for subtyping which is both sound and complete with our restrictions, an algorithm for lazily joining types with wildcards which addresses some of the shortcomings of prior work, and techniques for improving the Java type system as a whole. Lastly, we describe various extensions to wildcards that would be compatible with our algorithms.

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