Two PhD positions at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow

I have two PhD studentships (** huge caveat about funding follows **) in the Mathematically Structured Programming group at Strathclyde

Position 1: Is for a fixed project jointly with the National Physical Laboratory, to do with category-theoretic techniques for Bayesian inference and estimation in complex systems. Some programming experience is preferred for this project.

Position 2: Has no fixed project attached, feel free to propose a research project roughly within my interests of applied category theory + economics, machine learning and optimisation/control, or to discuss with me. (See for details.)

To apply, email a CV plus any another documents to me at . If you’d like to discuss with me then you can email me, or use any other public channel you can find me on (Zulip, Twitter). I’m happy to arrange a Zoom call if you prefer that.

I enthusiastically encourage anyone to apply who considers themselves part of a minority group within academia

Arbitrary application deadline is January 31st 2021. Start date is flexible

The MSP group at Strathclyde is an exciting group to be part of, focussing on type theory, category theory and their applications. Faculty is: Neil Ghani, Conor McBride, Glynn Winskel, Radu Mardare, Clemens Kupke, Ross Duncan, Bob Atkey, Fredrik Norvall Forsberg and me. See

(Caveat: The funding situation is extremely complicated and uncertain because of Brexit. For UK citizens these positions are definitely fully-funded. For Europeans the official position is “it’s very complicated” and “we haven’t decided yet”. Here are direct quotes from a recently-circulated email: “Scholarships for PGR [postgraduate researcher = PhD student] EU fee status students are still being considered, with further information expected early in the new year… Determining which EU students will continue to be eligible for home fees, and which will fall into the new EU fee status is very complex, and depends on aspects such as family members, residency, and settled or pre settled status, and we’re waiting on further guidance from the government on some of these elements too. So it’s worth being aware that it’s not as straight forward as that if a student is from the EU they will definitely fall into the new EU fee status from 2021-22. We won’t have a full understanding of how many EU students will come under this new fee category until much closer to the 2021 intake.

There are no eligibility requirements on the position, but those not eligible for “home fees” will require a secondary source of funding. In some cases it is possible (but not guaranteed) the the university can find extra funding for a strong applicant.

Probabilistic programming with continuations

In this post I’ll explain something folkloric: that you can pretend that the continuation monad is a probability monad, and do probabilistic programming in it. Unlike more obvious representations of probability like the one in Numeric.Probability.Distribution via lists, this way works equally well for continuous as for discrete distributions (as long as you don’t mind numerical integration). The post is a literate Haskell program, which is an expanded version of this repository. It’s a sort of sequel to my very first blog post, Abusing the continuation monad.

I mentally call this idea “synthetic measure theory” or sometimes “synthetic probability”, although as far as I know it is not related to various Google hits for those terms such as this, or this. (But one of the hits is this paper, which is probably related.)

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Towards dependent optics

There are two different generalises of lenses that are important in my research. One is optics, which are a non-obvious generalisation of lenses that work over a monoidal category (whereas lenses only work over a finite product category). We use optics in Bayesian open games, over the category of Markov kernels (kleisli category of probability). The other is dependent lenses, also known as containers and equivalent to polynomial functors. These haven’t appeared in a game theory paper yet, but I use them privately to handle external choice of games better than lenses do.

An interesting and probably-hard question is to find a common generalisation of optics and dependent lenses. In this post I’ll outline the problem and explain a (probable) partial solution that might be useful for somebody, but doesn’t appear useful in game theory. This post will be heavy on category theory: I assume knowledge of fibred categories and the Grothendieck construction.

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Subgame perfection made difficult

This is the second post in catching up on aspects of open-games-hs that are ahead of my papers, following open games with stateful payoffs. Subgame perfection has been an embarrassing thorn in my side since 2016 when I had to do major surgery on my PhD thesis because the category of “open games with subgame perfect equilibria” turned out to not be monoidal. Currently there are two approaches: One in iterated open games which is quite pragmatic and requires the “user” specifying an open game to manually mark where the subgames are by applying a functor; and one in morphisms of open games which I find very elegant but requires both an extra categorical dimension and an equivalent amount of effort by the “user”.

I always wanted an “automatic” approach to subgame perfection in open games, like I failed to do in my thesis – just draw the usual string diagram, and get subgame perfect equilibria out. I now have a way to do it, implemented in OpenGames.Engine.SubgamePerfect, which I’ll document here.

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Open games with stateful payoffs

I’m starting to worry that my open games implementation is getting ahead of what I’ve written in papers in a few ways, and I should correct that with documentation blog posts. This one is about the module OpenGames.Engine.StatefulPayoffs, which is a pragmatic solution to a fundamental conceptual problem with open games: the identity of agents is not well-defined. Rather the fundamental unit is a decision, and if two decisions are made by the same agent then it is the user’s responsibility to make sure that those decisions have the same payoff, or at least game-theoretically “coherent” payoffs.

For a long time I thought this was a conceptual problem but not a practical one. But recent work with my collaborators Philipp Zahn, Seth Frey and Joshua Tan has stress-tested open games in new ways and revealed it to a problem after all. Specifically, if one agent makes 2 decisions on different sides of an abstraction boundary, then the programmer must explicitly design the boundary to accommodate that agent’s payoff. This feels like an abstraction leak.

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Lax functors describe emergent effects

In this post I’ll describe something that’s kind of common knowledge among applied category theorists, that when you describe behaviour via a (pseudo)functor to the category of relations, emergent effects are described by the failure of that functor to be strong, ie. to be an actual functor. This is more or less in Seven Sketches (Fong and Spivak say “generative effects”, which as far as I can tell is an exact synonym for emergent effects), but I’ll write it in one place and in my own words.

Suppose we have a domain-specific category \mathcal C. It’s hopefully monoidal and most likely a hypergraph category, but the basic idea of what I’m saying applies just to the category structure. The morphisms of \mathcal C are open systems of some sort, the objects describe the open boundaries that a system can have, and composition describes coupling two systems together along a common boundary. The standard sledgehammer for building categories like this is decorated cospans, with structured cospans as a closely related new alternative.

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Categorical cybernetics: A manifesto

(Image credit: H.R. Grant / SaurianDandy)

I suddenly became obsessed with cybernetics (exactly) 2 weeks ago when I learned what the word actually means, closely followed by this tweet bring my attention to the following line from the beginning of Kenneth Boulding’s classic (1956) paper General Systems Theory: “The developments of a mathematics of quality and structure is already on the way, even though it is not as far advanced as the “classical” mathematics of quantity and number.” Which sounds like category theory to me. (I think it’s extremely unlikely Boulding had category theory in mind – Eilenberg and Mac Lane’s General Theory of Natural Equivalences was published in 1945; for comparison the first textbook on graph theory was published in 1936.)

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Symmetric polymorphic lenses (maybe)

Whereas ordinary directed lenses go from a source to a view, symmetric lenses relate two different views of an internal source. I’ve been thinking about how to smoosh together symmetric lenses with polymorphic lenses, which are the sort used in functional programming. My actual goal is to invent “symmetric open games” (without relying on non-well-founded recursion like I did in this paper). But with the right definition, I think symmetric polymorphic lenses could be a useful tool to programmers as well.

Normally when I’m playing with an idea like this I mock it up in Haskell and play around with it to check it works, before committing to too much hard work on the proofs. But this would be very difficult (and maybe impossible) to write in Haskell, so the idea of this post is to give enough detail that some folks could try it in Agda or Idris, and give me feedback on whether it feels like something useful. (In the meantime, I will try an extremely fast and loose Haskell version by pretending that pullbacks and pushouts are products and coproducts, and see what happens.)

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Are open games useful for my problem?

Recently open games have reached a state where they realistically might start becoming useful to some people (see this demo). I want to write down the current state of the art, what I believe is possible and what I believe are the limitations of compositional methods. This guides which sorts of situations I believe open games will be applicable to.

First I will say what open games can already do (at least in theory). Then I will say what is awkward and what I think is probably possible with future work, and finally when I think you shouldn’t use open games. This post is written for a hypothetical reader who wants to use game theory as a modelling paradigm.

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Folklore: Monoidal kleisli categories

I’ve been threatening a few times recently to blog about bits of mathematical folklore that I use, i.e. important things that aren’t easy to find in the literature. I’m going to start with an easy one that won’t take me long to write.

Theorem: Given a commutative strong monad on a symmetric monoidal category, the kleisli category is symmetric monoidal in a canonical way.

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