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Are 'Map,' 'Reduce' and 'Filter' Turing Complete?

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Are 'Map,' 'Reduce' and 'Filter' Turing Complete?

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You can implement any algorithm with map, reduce and filter when taken in the context of modern languages that implement these constructs. The predicate functions they rely on are Turing complete, which makes them Turing complete by extension.

But that’s a smart-a** answer, isn’t it? Implementing your whole algorithm in a predicate function and wrapping it in a map call feels like cheating.

Can you implement an algorithm just with map, reduce and filter?


Those three functions on their own can’t do squat. Writing something like map(reduce(reduce(map(reduce(filter(4)))))) will not make anything happen.

We first have to decide what we’re trying to ask.

I’ve been losing sleep over this whole thing ever since a technical editor nerd-sniped me last week. “A smart man once told me you can write any program as a sequence of map and reduce calls. I like to add filter for a more comprehensive toolset,” I wrote in Data Visualization with d3.js.

The editor’s only comment was, “This is wrong. For instance, you can’t implement sorting like this.”

And well, yes, he’s right. But he also isn’t. What did Smart Guy™ try to tell me all those years ago when he introduced me to functional programming?

Back to basics.

To have a Turing complete language you need:

  1. Write cell
  2. Read cell
  3. Move left
  4. Move right
  5. Branching (based on cell value)

We assume our memory is practically infinite. Meaning it’s not infinite per se, but we can add more when we run out.

In his LISP-creating paper, McCarthy wrote that a recursive alternative to an iterative Turing machine needs the following constructs:

  1. atom – is this symbol an atom (one of the basic characters)
  2. eq – are both these symbols atoms
  3. car – returns the first part of a two-element list
  4. cdr – returns the second part of a two-element list
  5. cons – constructs a list from two elements
  6. recursive definitions using these five constructs

Where does this leave us in regard to our original question? Can we construct anything out of a sequence of map, reduce and filter?

It depends.

In the context of a strict functional language, with the addition of recursion, yes, we probably can.

After all, implementing a naive quicksort in Haskell takes nothing more than recursion, car, cdr, cons and filter.

quicksort [] = []
quicksort (x:xs) =
          let smaller = quicksort (filter (<=x) xs)
              bigger = quicksort (filter (>x) xs)
          in smaller ++ [x] ++ bigger

Basically, if quicksort gets an empty list, return an empty list. Otherwise, make a new list and put elements smaller than x on the left, bigger on the right. ++ is essentially cons, and that (x:xs) bit splits the list, so the first item becomes x and the other items become xs.

This is one of the tersest sorting implementations I’ve ever seen. And we didn’t really go out of our map, reduce and filter framework, did we? The ability to append to and split lists is usually assumed.

But can we go a step further? Can we implement filter with map and reduce? Let’s try.

function filter (predicate, list) {
    return list.map(function (a) {
        return predicate(a) ? [a] : null;
    }).reduce(function (prev, current) {
        return current ? prev.concat(current) : prev;
    }, []);

Yes, we can. Even in Javascript, which the original question was about. It’s rather simple: Mark unwanted entries with map, then use reduce to create a new list sans unwanted entries.

We could go a step further and use only reduce?

function filter2 (predicate, list) {
    return list.reduce(function (prev, current) {
        return predicate(current) ? prev.concat(current) : prev;
    }, []);

It turns out that reduce and filter are the same function once you assume that branching and comparison are a given. .concat is Javascript’s version of cons, by the way.

We can implement that Haskell example in Javascript as well. Proving that even with Javascript, recursion, map and reduce are enough to do anything.

function quicksort (list) {
    if (list.length == 0) {
        return [];
    var x = list[0],
        xs = list.slice(1);
    return quicksort(filter2(function (a) { return a <= x; }, xs))
            quicksort(filter2(function (a) { return a > x; }, xs)));

Exact same code as before, just wordier, because Javascript is fluffier than Haskell.

But are we any closer to discovering our question?

Not really, no. We’ve just shown that given conditionals, a way to slice and append lists, recursion, map and reduce, we can do anything. Even in Javascript.

You should read my book, Why programmers work at night.

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