Encoding Traits with Go Generics

It turns out that Go v1.18’s generics functionality is enough to encode traits, which has many applications. In particular, we could write a generic library for Elliptic Curves, among other things.


Before version 1.18, the main way of achieving polymorphism in Go was via interfaces. For example, we could define an interface for objects which are serializable:

type Serializable interface {
    Serialize() []byte

Go has implicit interface implementation. To implement this interface, we just need to have a type which happens to have a method with the right name:

type Pony struct {
    name string

func (p *Pony) Serialize() []byte {
    return []byte(p.name)

We can write a method which takes in an arbitrary element of this interface:

func serialize(s Serializable) []byte {

Note that which method is called depends on what object gets passed to this function at runtime. We use dynamic dispatch to look through virtual tables in order to call the right function.

The other approach we can contrast this with is the trait or typeclass approach, popularized by languages like Rust and Haskell.

In Haskell’s case, we would implement Serializable like this:

class Serializable a where
    serialize :: a -> ByteString

We would then use this typeclass in a similar way to Go:

actuallySerialize :: Serializable s => s -> ByteString
actuallySerialize s = serialize s

Note that unlike Go, the method call is resolved at compile time. In practice, a different version of actuallySerialize will be created for each type it ends up being called with. Go takes a similar approach with its generics, as we’ll see soon.

I actually wrote about the differences between these approaches 3 years ago, so I’ll refer you to that post for a more detailed discussion.

The most important difference is that the typeclass approach lets us refer to the type implementing the typeclass. For example, in our Serializable class in Haskell, we had a reference to a, which is whatever type was implementing the class.

This self type can appear at any position, and even multiple times. For example, we could define a class for groups as:

class Group a where
    one :: a
    inv :: a -> a
    mul :: a -> a -> a

Whereas interfaces can only define methods, that is, functions that look like:

a -> X -> Y

traits can place the a anywhere in the function type. With Go’s interfaces, there’s no good way to reference the type implementing the interface, or to require that that the return type of the method is the same as the receiver.

A Workaround

One little workaround is that you can make the contract about returning an element of the same type implicit. For example, we could define a group interface as:

type Group interface {
    Inv() Group
    Mul(Group) Group

This interface says that we return and accept any type implementing this interface. But, we can implicitly allow implementors to only work with their own type, casting whenever necessary:

type F13 int

func (x F13) Inv() Group {
    // x ** 12 mod 13
    var out F13
    return out

func (x F13) Mul(generic Group) Group {
    y := generic.(F13)
    return x * y % 13

It’s understood that implementors won’t actually accept any object satisfying the interface, but only objects with the same type as them. Similarly, they will only ever return objects of the same type.

Naturally, this casting comes at a runtime cost, and is also very brittle. If you don’t conform to this implicit contract, you’ll get panics at runtime, which isn’t exactly pleasant.

We used an approach like this to abstract over curves in the Threshold Signature library I worked on at Taurus.

One problem with this approach is that there’s no good way to represent the methods which create an element of the group out of thin air, like:

class Group a where
    one :: a

For this, one approach is to define a secondary interface, related to the group, which knows how to create elements of that group:

type GroupDomain interface {
    One() Group

type Group interface {
    Domain() GroupDomain
    Inv() Group
    Mul(Group) Group

For Elliptic Curves, the natural thing to do is to define an interface for a Curve, which knows how to create scalars and points.

This approach is still somewhat artificial, but is actually what we’ll be basing ourselves upon when using generics, albeit with more type safety.

Enter Generics

I find Go’s generics to be pretty complicated. In my opinion, most of this is non-essential complexity, comparing to a green-field implementation of generics. But, since Go had to find a way to implement generics in a backwards compatible way and with minimal changes to the language, I can’t really comment on whether or not the solution was more complicated than necessary in that context.

All of this to say that I won’t be explaining how they work completely here, so I refer you to the Go reference.

The core of this proposal is that functions can now accept type parameters, like:

func id[T any](t T) T {
    return t

func main() {

In theory, one version of id will get created for each type it gets used with. What matters is that the dispatch doesn’t have to be done at runtime, unlike with interfaces.

This function doesn’t really do anything interesting with the generic type. In fact, with T any, we can’t really do anything with the type itself, beyond moving it around between containers.

To do interesting things, we need some kind of constraint on T, so that we can assume certain behaviors, and then make use of those behaviors.

Go decided to base its constraint system off of its existing interface system. So, we can take a normal interface:

type Serializable interface {
    Serialize() []byte

and then use it as a constraint in a generic function:

func actuallySerialize[T Serializable](t T) []byte {
    return t.Serialize()

Now, we could have written this as:

func actuallySerializeI(t Serializable) []byte {
    return t.Serialize()

The difference is that one of these uses static dispatch, and the other uses dynamic dispatch. Otherwise, they’re pretty similar.

Where things really get interesting is that types can also be generic. So you can have:

type Array[T any] struct {
    data []T

We can also have generic interfaces:

type ConvertibleTo[T any] interface {
    Convert() T

And ConvertibleTo[T] can also be used as a type constraint!

func convert[T any, C ConvertibleTo[T]](c C) X {
    return c.Convert()

This is the fundamental construct we’ll use to create a trait for groups, along with the “domain” idea we saw earlier.

Representing Groups

The basic idea is that instead of making an interface for a group, we make an interface parameterized by a group, which knows how to perform operations over that group.

To illustrate the idea, we have:

type Group[E any] interface {
    One() E
    Inv(E) E
    Mul(E, E) E

This mimics the Group typeclass we had in Haskell earlier.

Now, the type implementing this interface will just be a dummy type:

type F13Element int

type F13 struct{}

func (F13) One() F13Element {
    return 1

func (F13) Inv(e F13Element) F13Element {
    // return e ** 12 % 13

func (F13) Mul(a, b F13Element) F13Element {
    return a * b % 13

We can then create and use a generic function over groups like this:

func square[E any, G GroupDomain[E]](group G, e E) E {
	return group.Mul(e, e)

func main() {
	square[F13Element, F13](F13{}, 2)

The object for the group itself doesn’t really contain any information, what matters is that the methods on that object implement the operations for that group. All we care about is the dictionary of methods the object carries around. The advantage of generics is that this dictionary only exists at compile time, and we have a larger amount of type-safety compared to the runtime casting approach.

Associated Types

In most uses of a group, we also want to access the associated class of scalars for that group. We can do this pretty easily as well:

type Scalars[S any] interface {
    Zero() S
    One() S
    Add(S, S) S
    Neg(S) S
    Mul(S, S) S
    Inv(S) S

type Group[S any, E any, SD Scalars[S]] interface {
    Scalars() SD
    Identity() E
    Generator() E
    Mul(E, E) E
    Inv(E) E
    Scale(S, E) E

A group is parameterized by three things now. First, we have the type of elements in the group, then we have the type of scalars in the group, and then we need some type which can manipulate the scalars.

Like with groups, the type implementing Scalars[S] will be an empty struct, acting only as a vehicle for the dictionary of methods.

We can then implement a generic method using these types:

func twoTimesG[E, S any, SD Scalars[S], G Group[S, E, SD]](group G) E {
    scalars := group.Scalars()
    one := scalars.One()
    two := scalars.Add(one, one)
    return group.Scale(two, group.Generator())

I think this scales to a more complete description of a Cryptographic group, with methods for deserialization, conversion from ints, etc, but I’ve yet to actually try writing a full package with this technique.


This method is really a straightforward application of some ideas from Haskell, but I expect this kind of technique to show up in some shape or form, because the ability to abstract over things like groups, and in general algebraic structures, is quite useful. Even if you’re not doing math, there are many situations where something of one type can be combined with itself to make another thing of that same type.

I think the method I’ve described here should also be directly useful to create a generic Elliptic Curve library for Cryptography, which would be a worthwhile addition to the Go ecosystem. When writing our Threshold Signature library, we wanted to abstract over curves, instead of doing everything over secp256k1, and I think this approach would be better than the dynamic dispatch version we came up with. Having a standardized solution to interoperate across different libraries would be great as well.

I think this technique isn’t the ultimate solution to this problem though, and it’s possible that people will find more elegant ways of expressing the same concept in Go. Maybe Go’s generics will evolve more functionality over time; who knows?