This lecture continues our exploration of the SML module system, by introducing the idea of functors, which are simply module-level functions which take in structures and produce other structures.
We motivated this idea by trying to implement a structure for polymorphic dictionaries, which are dictionaries that can map from keys of arbitrary (but fixed) type to values of also arbitrary type. To do this, we required taking in a comparison function to order the keys, but this ended up producing unsafe behavior in the event that this comparison function was used erroneously.
We found that a safer approach was to parameterize our structure on a type class
ORD, which describes structures of types that have
included comparison functions. By defining it according to a singular instance
ORD type class, we were able to then translate the code into a functor,
which assumed the type class as an argument.
We then saw that we could reuse the same dictionary-creating code for many different type classes, at minimal extra burden. This demonstrates the power of functors, which allow us to parameterize software components based on other software components in a well-specified way.