TypeScript: Messages from Interfaces and back

UPDATE: Full code available at this gist (also embedded below).

Say you have the following TypeScript interface I that you want to invoke remotely by passing messages of type M; or that you receive messages of type M and want to handle them using an object of type I:

interface I {
    m1(a: string, b: number): boolean;
    m2(): void;
    m3(n: number): void;
    m4(x: [string, string]): { k: string, j: string };
    m5(a: string, b: string[]): number;

type M = { selector: "m1", args: [string, number], callback: (result: boolean) => void }
       | { selector: "m2", args: [], callback: (result: void) => void }
       | { selector: "m3", args: [number], callback: (result: void) => void }
       | { selector: "m4", args: [[string, string]], callback: (result: { k: string; j: string }) => void }
       | { selector: "m5", args: [string, string[]], callback: (result: number) => void }

Keeping things type-safe looks really tedious! There’s obviously a connection between I and M. Can we avoid writing them by hand?

Can we derive M from I? Can we derive I from M?

The answer to all of these questions is yes!1

TL;DR TypeScript lets us define generic types Messages and Methods such that M = Messages<I> and I = Methods<M>. Read on for the details.

Interface ⟶ Messages

Let’s start with what, for me, has been the common case: given an interface type, automatically produce the type of messages that can be sent to implementors of the interface.

First, how do we want to represent messages?

type Message<Selector extends ValidSelector, Args extends any[], Result> =
    Args extends never[]
    ? { selector: Selector, args: [], callback: (result: Result) => void }
    : { selector: Selector, args: Args, callback: (result: Result) => void }

type ValidSelector = string | number | symbol

I’ve taken a leaf out of Smalltalk’s book, and made a message include a selector, the name of the method the message intends to invoke, and some args, the provided arguments to the method. The Args extends never[] check is to help type inference deduce the empty argument tuple: without it, the type system won’t complain about missing arguments.

I’ve also added a callback to Message. The technique I describe here can be further extended to “asynchronous” or callbackless settings with minor modifications.

The next definition, of type Messages<I>, is where the magic happens. It expands to a union of Messages representing the methods defined in I:

type Messages<I> = MessagesProduct<I>[keyof I]
type MessagesProduct<I> = {
    [K in keyof I]: (I[K] extends (...args: infer P) => infer Q ? Message<K, P, Q> : never);

And that’s it! Here’s how it works:

  • MessagesProduct is a mapped type that describes a modified interface, where all (and only) the method properties of interface I are rewritten to have a Message as their type, but keeping the same key;

  • then, the ...[keyof I] part in the definition of Messages uses index types to set up a union type built from all the value types (“indexed access operator”) associated with all the keys in I (“index type query operator”).

Messages ⟶ Interface

Going in the other direction is simpler:

type Methods<M extends { selector: ValidSelector }> = {
    [S in M['selector']]: (
        M extends Message<S, infer P, infer R> ? (...args: P) => R :

It’s a mapped type, again, that maps union members that have Message type to an appropriate function signature. It takes advantage of TypeScript’s automatic distributivity: a union of products gets rewritten to be a product of unions. Then, in the conditional type M extends Message<...> ? ..., it projects out just exactly the member of interest again.2

This time we use the mapped type as-is instead of re-projecting it into a union using indexed access like we did with MessagesProduct above.

Type-safe interpretation of messages

Now we have types for our interfaces, and types for the messages that match them, can we write a type-safe generic perform function? Yes, we can!

function perform<I extends Methods<M>,
                 S extends ValidSelector,
                 M extends Message<S, any, any>>(i: I, m: M): void
    m.callback(i[m.selector](... m.args));

An example

Given the above definition for I, actually using Messages<I> produces the following type definition3 (according to the IDE that I use):

type M = Message<"m1", [a: string, b: number], boolean>
       | Message<"m2", [], void>
       | Message<"m3", [n: number], void>
       | Message<"m4", [x: [string, string]], { k: string; j: string }>
       | Message<"m5", [a: string, b: string[]], number>

Conversely, given the M from the top of the file, we get the following for Methods<M>:

type I = {
    m1: (a: string, b: number) => boolean;
    m2: () => void;
    m3: (n: number) => void;
    m4: (x: [string, string]) => { k: string; j: string };
    m5: (a: string, b: string[]) => number;

Roundtripping works too: both Methods<Messages<I>> and Messages<Methods<M>> give what you expect.

TypeScript is really cool

It’s a fully-fledged, ergonomic realization of the research started by Sam Tobin-Hochstadt, who invented Occurrence Typing, the technology at the heart of TypeScript.

Then, building on the language itself, emacs with tide, flycheck, and company makes for a very pleasant IDE.4

Congratulations to Sam, whose ideas really have worked out amazingly well, and to the TypeScript team for producing such a polished and pleasant language.

Appendix: Full code implementing this idea

This module implements the idea described in this article, extended with the notion of EventMessages, which don’t have a callback.

// This Tuple type (and tuple() function) is a hack to induce
// TypeScript to infer tuple types rather than array types. (Source:
// https://github.com/microsoft/TypeScript/issues/27179#issuecomment-422606990)
// Without it, [123, 'hi', true] will often get the type (string |
// number | boolean)[] instead of [number, string, boolean].
export type Tuple = any[] | [any];
export const tuple = <A extends Tuple>(... args: A) => args;

// Type ValidSelector captures TypeScript's notion of a valid object
// property name.
export type ValidSelector = string | number | symbol;

export type EventMessage<Selector extends ValidSelector, Args extends any[]> =
    { selector: Selector, args: Args };

export type RequestMessage<Selector extends ValidSelector, Args extends any[], Result extends Exclude<any, void>> =
    { selector: Selector, args: Args, callback: (result: Result) => void };

export type Message<Selector extends ValidSelector, Args extends any[], Result> =
    void extends Result ? EventMessage<Selector, Args> : RequestMessage<Selector, Args, Result>;

// Function message() is needed for similar reasons to tuple() above:
// to help TypeScript infer the correct literal type for the selector
// (as well as the arguments).
export const message = <S extends ValidSelector, A extends Tuple, R>(m: Message<S, A, R>) => m;

type MessagesProduct<I, ContextArgs extends any[]> = {
    [K in keyof I]: (I[K] extends (...args: [...ContextArgs, ...infer P]) => infer Q
        ? Message<K, P, Q>
        : never);

export type Messages<I, ContextArgs extends any[] = []> = MessagesProduct<I, ContextArgs>[keyof I];

export type Methods<M extends { selector: ValidSelector }, ContextArgs extends any[] = []> = {
    [S in M['selector']]: (
        M extends RequestMessage<S, infer P, infer R>
            ? (void extends R ? never : (...args: [...ContextArgs, ...P]) => R)
            : (M extends EventMessage<S, infer P>
                ? (...args: [...ContextArgs, ...P]) => void
               : never));

export function perform<I extends Methods<M, ContextArgs>,
                        S extends ValidSelector,
                        M extends RequestMessage<S, Tuple, any>,
                        ContextArgs extends any[] = []>
    (i: I, m: M, ...ctxt: ContextArgs): (M extends RequestMessage<S, Tuple, infer R> ? R : never);
export function perform<I extends Methods<M, ContextArgs>,
                        S extends ValidSelector,
                        M extends EventMessage<S, Tuple>,
                        ContextArgs extends any[] = []>
    (i: I, m: M, ...ctxt: ContextArgs): void;
export function perform<I extends Methods<M, ContextArgs>,
                        S extends ValidSelector,
                        M extends RequestMessage<S, Tuple, any>,
                        ContextArgs extends any[] = []>
    (i: I, m: M, ...ctxt: ContextArgs): any
    const r = i[m.selector](...ctxt, ... m.args);
    return r;

  1. Well, at least in TypeScript v4.x, anyway. I don’t know about earlier versions. 

  2. Actually I’ll admit to not being quite sure that this is what’s really going on here. TypeScript’s unions feel a bit murky: there’s been more than one occasion I’ve been surprised at what a union-of-products has been automatically “simplified” (?) into. 

  3. Hey, what’s going on with those named tuple slots? I would have expected a tuple type like [number, string] not to be able to have names attached to the slots, but it turns out I’m wrong and the compiler at least internally propagates names in some circumstances! It even re-uses them if you convert a Messages<I> back into an interface, Methods<Messages<I>>… 

  4. Here’s my .emacs TypeScript setup, based on the examples in the tide manual:

    (defun setup-tide-mode ()
      (flycheck-mode +1)
      (setq flycheck-check-syntax-automatically '(save mode-enabled))
      (eldoc-mode +1)
      (tide-hl-identifier-mode +1)
      (company-mode +1)
      (local-set-key (kbd "TAB") #'company-indent-or-complete-common)
      (local-set-key (kbd "C-<return>") #'tide-fix))
    (setq company-tooltip-align-annotations t)
    (add-hook 'typescript-mode-hook #'setup-tide-mode)