The most important thing you need to know about attributed
variables is that Prolog application programmers
normally need not use them. This chapter is intended
mainly for Prolog library authors who want to
improve or implement more declarative language constructs.
Attributed variables are a low-level mechanism for
implementing declarative constructs. However, when considered in
isolation, they have the potential to prevent and run counter to
the declarative reading
we want to apply to pure
For this reason, attributed variables should only be used as
a building block
for higher-level mechanisms.
If you are a Prolog library author, your interest in this topic
may be warranted. To application programmers, my recommendation is
to use existing libraries that provide equivalent functionality
under more declarative wrappers.
Prolog implementors may be interested in
the Minato task and
in the Equivalence task to
assess the generality of their interface predicates.
How it started
Already the first Prolog system, sometimes
called Prolog 0, supported the
To Prolog implementors and practitioners, the question soon
became: By which general mechanism can we we implement
further constraints conveniently, correctly and efficiently?
When considering existing approaches of extensions to syntactic
unification, we observe: highly specialized implementations, where the
unification algorithm cannot be manipulated by the user
(e.g. [Col87,JaLa87,vH89]), approaches too general to be
implemented efficiently and too general to allow the reuse of existing
Prolog programs [Ko84], or extensions allowing definitions in a
procedural language [CLiST89] only.
Our approach focuses on a sufficient abstract yet efficient
interface, which permits to write implementations of constraints in
Prolog, neglecting the actual representation of the constrained
variables. Metastructures are applicable, but not restricted to the
Among the projected use cases, stream-based side effect free I/O
is already mentioned in the paper. This is now available
How it continued
Christian Holzbaur, who back then was a very close colleague of
Ulrich Neumerkel, used metastructures in his
1990 dissertation, Specification of Constraint Based
Inference Mechanism through Extended Unification, in which he
After this experience, and having observed some shortcomings of
metastructures, Holzbaur proposed an alternative yet very strongly
related mechanism called attributed variables.
This package implements attributed variables. It provides a means of
associating with variables arbitrary attributes, i.e. named properties
that can be used as storage locations as well as to extend the default
unification algorithm when such variables are unified with other terms
or with each other.
This facility was primarily designed as a clean interface between
Prolog and constraint solvers, but has a number of other uses as well.
The basic idea is due to Christian Holzbaur and he was actively
involved in the final design. For background material, see the
dissertation [Holzbaur 90].
If you are interested in more information about the origin of
these developments, I recommend you ask the involved people
The same interface is also implemented in other Prolog systems,
such as in Scryer Prolog
What we have now
The concrete features of attributed variables vary between
Prolog systems. However, in all systems that provide
attributed variables, we have essentially the following features
at our disposal:
We can attach information to variables.
This information can be taken into account when a variable
is being unified.
This information can be displayed in answers on the
In the following, we consider one specific implementation of these
features in more detail.
Attributed variables in Scryer Prolog
To illustrate the key concepts of attributed variables, we
consider Scryer Prolog because it is freely available, and it
implements the same interface for attributed variables as
I would like to stress again that attributed variables normally
need not and also should not be used in
typical Prolog applications. Instead, and also in
Scryer Prolog, attributed variables are available to
implement features from Constraint Logic Programming such
as dif/2 and CLP(ℤ), and you should use these
higher-level predicates instead in typical use cases.
When working with attributed variables, you need to know
3 kinds of interface predicates, in accordance with the
features outlined above:
Predicates for adding, changing and removing attributes.
Predicates to reason about the unification of
variables that have attributes attached.
Predicates that let you display attributes on the toplevel in some form.
We now consider these kinds of predicates in turn. For more
information, see especially
Variables in the SICStus Prolog manual. Even though
the details differ in other Prolog systems, the kinds of
predicates are the same also in other systems.
Adding and changing attributes
An attributed variable is a relation between
a variable, a module and
With the interface of SICStus and Scryer Prolog, we declare
attributes in a module with the attribute/1 directive, using Name/Arity pairs:
This directive is made available via library(atts).
An attribute can be added and changed via:
If AccessSpec is of the form +(Attribute),
then the corresponding attribute is set to the specified value.
If AccessSpec is of the form -(Attribute),
then the attribute is removed. For convenience, the
wrapper + can be omitted.
To try this, let us define a sample module,
say attrmod.pl, where we declare
the attribute a/1:
We see that in response, the Prolog toplevel simply repeats what
we said. Thus, the toplevel retains the important invariant
that the answer is declaratively equivalent to the original
query. In this concrete case, all there is to say is: The
attribute a(test) is associated with the
variable X in module attrmod, and that's
exactly what this answer states. We call a variable that has an
attribute attached an attributed variable.
Importantly, when you use put_attr/3repeatedly
with the same variable and module, then any previously attached
value is simply overwritten. For example:
When the alternative is reported, we see from the absence of any
goals besides true that no more attribute is
attached to X. For this reason, assigning attributes
to variables blends well with Prolog's
built-in search strategy, and
is similar to unification in that respect. We say that the
modification is backtrackable.
Unification of attributed variables
The key distinction between variables and attributed
variables is what happens at the time of unification.
Attributed variables are special in that an extensible
predicate is automatically invoked when they are
unified. In SICStus and Scryer, the particular predicate that is invoked
is verify_attributes/3 residing in the module where
the attribute is attached. You, the Prolog programmer, can
provide a custom definition of this predicate, and it will
be automatically invoked by the Prolog engine when a variable
that has attributes attached is being unified.
For example, let us define a very rudimentary version
of verify_attributes/3 in our
verify_attributes(X, Y, _) :- throw(cannot_unify(X,Y)).
With this definition, which simply throws an exception when
it is invoked, we get for example:
?- attrmod:put_atts(X, a(1)),
X = Y.
M:verify_attributes(-Var, +Value, -Goals):
This predicate is called whenever a variable Var that might have
attributes in Module is about to be bound to Value (it might
have none). The unification resumes after the call to
verify_attributes/3. Value is a nonvariable, or another
attributed variable. Var might have no attributes present in
verify_attributes/3 is called beforeVar has
actually been bound to Value. If it fails, the unification is
deemed to have failed. It may succeed nondeterminately, in which
case the unification might backtrack to give another answer. It
is expected to return, in Goals, a list of goals to be called
after Var has been bound to Value. Finally, after calling Goals,
any goals blocked on Var are called.
verify_attributes/3 may invoke arbitrary Prolog goals,
but Var should not be bound by it. Binding Var will result in
If Value is a nonvariable, verify_attributes/3
will typically inspect the attributes of Var and check that they
are compatible with Value and fail otherwise. If Value is
another attributed variable, verify_attributes/3 will typically
copy the attributes of Var over to Value, or merge them with
Value’s, in preparation for Var to be bound
to Value. In either case, verify_attributes/3 may
determine Var’s current attributes by calling get_atts(Var, List)
with an unbound List.
In the case when a single unification binds multiple attributed
variables, first all such bindings are undone, then the
following actions are carried out for each relevant variable:
For each relevant module M, M:verify_attributes/3 is called, collecting a list of returned Goals.
The variable binding is redone.
Any Goals are called.
Any blocked goals are called.
First, let us try out what the documentation states: For example,
let us make the unification fail.
verify_attributes(_, _, _) :- false.
Example query and answer:
?- attrmod:put_atts(X, a(n(1))),
X = Y.
OK, this works as advertised. In this example and the following,
compound terms of the
form n(N) to represent the integer N.
We could also use the integers directly instead. However,
this would risk ending up with a defaulty
representation, and also prevent us from symbolically
distinguishing attributes from variables in the code
Second, let us modify the
involved attributes upon unification. If a unification
involves two (or more) variables, we must
state how such a unification affects the involved variables.
Let us extend the example from above: In the above case, we have
associated the Prolog terms n(1) and n(2)
with the variables X and Y, using the
attribute a/1. To gather experience with the
interface, let us say that upon unification of two variables with
respective attributes a(n(A)) and a(n(B)),
where A and B are integers, we want to attach
the new attribute a(n(C)) to the resulting (single)
variable, where C is the sum of A
To accomplish this, we need a way to reason about existing
attributes of variable. The predicate get_atts/2 is
available for this purpose:
If AccessSpec is of the form +(Attribute),
then the corresponding attribute must be present and is unified
with Attribute. For convenience, the
wrapper + can be omitted.
Thus, we shall now implement the following steps:
Upon unification of two variables with attributes from
module attrmod, fetch
their a/1 attributes.
?- attrmod:put_atts(X, a(n(1))),
X = Y.
X = Y, attrmod:put_atts(Y,a(n(3))).
And indeed this works: After the unification, a(n(3)) is
associated with the resulting single variable, which is X
or, equivalently, Y, and 3 is the result
The following yields an uninstantiation error, because
because get_atts/2—which is used in our definition
of verify_attributes/3)—requires its first argument
to be a variable, whereas we use the atom b:
?- attrmod:put_atts(X, a(n(1))),
X = b.
In fact, with the above definition of verify_attributes/3,
only very specific kinds of unifications will succeed. In
particular, every unification with a ground value will
yield an uninstantiation error. However, in actual
constraint systems, we are very interested in ground terms,
because they typically represent concrete solutions.
Let us therefore generalize the above definition
of verify_attributes/3 (in module attrmod)
in such a way that it still illustrates a key feature of the whole
interface, namely the ability to selectively veto
unifications. For example, in our concrete case, let us allow
unifications with a concrete integeriff that
integer matches the associated integer value that is stored in the
involved variable's attribute.
We hence must distinguish two different cases when two
terms X and Y are unified. Let us consider
it from the perspective of X, i.e., let us suppose
that verify_attributes/3 is invoked with X as
the first argument. (Of course, the other case is completely
symmetric, but we need to draw this distinction to discuss the
cases.) Then, eitherY is
an integerk. In that case, we must veto
the unification (i.e., fail) if k does not match the
integer that is stored in the attribute
of X. OrY is an
attributed variable. In that case, we proceed exactly as
previously: We compute the sum of the two integers that are
stored in the attributes of the involved variables, and associate
that sum with the unified variable.
In Prolog, we can express this distinction with the built-in
verify_attributes(Var, Value, ) :-
( integer(Value) ->
Value =:= A
; get_atts(Value, a(n(B)))
C #= A + B,
Here are a few sample queries and their results:
?- attrmod:put_atts(X, a(n(1))), X = 1.
X = 1.
?- attrmod:put_atts(X, a(n(1))), X = 3.
?- attrmod:put_atts(X, a(n(1))),
X = Y,
X = 3.
X = Y, Y = 3.
Thus, everything seems to work as intended. We have successfully
created a simplistic constraint solver, which
admittedly has quite peculiar semantics but implements what we
have outlined. However, this concrete solver has a very severe
declarative flaw, which becomes apparent if you eliminate the
goal X = Y in the above conjunction:
?- attrmod:put_atts(X, a(n(1))),
X = 3.
In this case, generalizing a query (by removing a
constraint) has created a
more specific program (which is now equivalent
to false). This violates elementary properties we expect
from logic programs and
prevents for example declarative debugging.
The key takeaway from this is that the interface for attributed
variables does not by itself provide any guarantees of the
resulting constraint solver. You, the programmer, must
implement your system in such a way that desirable properties are
preserved in resulting programs. We return to this point below.
For now, let us conclude this section with a more interesting and
also more realistic example: We now implement a simplistic
constraint solver over finite domains, where the
attribute of each involved variable is an ordered list
of elements, representing the admissible domain of the
A suitable unification hook for such a constraint solver could
look like this:
If Var has an associated domain Dom1,
and Other is a variable that has an associated
domain Dom2, then we build
the intersectionDom =
Dom1 ∩ Dom2. This ordered list contains
all elements that are admissible for both variables
that have been unified.
We only proceed if Dom is different
(dif/2) from the
empty list, and
hence there is at least one remaining domain element
that is admissible for the resulting unified variable.
If Dom has only a single remaining element, then
that element must be equal to the unified variable
(because there is no other choice).
Otherwise, assign the intersection Dom as
an attribute to the unified variable.
If Other has no associated domain, then the
unification is only admissible if Other is
a member of the domain Dom1.
In addition, let us use the following definition to associate a
variable with its domain:
This works because upon unification, the hook is invoked, builds
the intersection of the two domains, determines that they have
only a single element in common, and hence unifies the
resulting variable with that element. Note that X
and Y have become completely indistinguishable.
Unification has truly unified them.
Exercise (hard): The following property is highly desirable
for a constraint solver. Prove that it holds in this case, or
provide a counterexample: For every
Prolog query Q that consists only
of domain/2 and (=)/2 goals, removing
one of the goals makes the resulting query Q' at
least as general as Q, in the sense that the set
of solutions of Q is a subset of those
In an actual constraint solver, we are not content with answers
that look like attrmod:put_atts(X,a(test)). Instead, what we
expect from a constraint solver is a representation of remaining
attributes that is meaningful to humans. Thus, we expect a
constraint solver to emit more high-level Prolog goals
as answers, which have a well-defined meaning no matter how they
are internally implemented.
For this purpose, there is
the DCG nonterminalM:attribute_goals//1. In
Scryer Prolog, you can define this nonterminal in a
module M, and it is automatically invoked by the
Prolog engine for each variable X that has an
attribute in M. It is defined as follows:
This is a DCG nonterminal describing
a list of Prolog goals which caused the presence
of V's attributes in module M. This means
that executing these goals should lead to equivalent attributes
on X in module M.
For example, let us apply this feature to our simple finite
domain constraint solver that we considered above. It only has a
single interface predicate,
called domain/2. Ideally, answers that are reported
on the toplevel should only use public interface predicates,
since their meaning is known to users.
Thus, it remains for us to translate attributes to
so-called residual goals, using the above nonterminal.
In the concrete case above, we can do it like this:
This simply fetches the attribute, and describes a list with
a single goal. Here is an example that illustrates that
this predicate is automatically invoked by the toplevel when
?- domain(X, "abc").
It also works for more complex queries:
?- domain(X, "abc"),
X = Y.
X = Y,
Using this mechanism, you can always translate internal attributes
to Prolog goals that are more meaningful to users.
The toplevel provides this functionality by internally invoking
the predicate copy_term/3. This predicate creates
a copy of variables that may be involved in constraints,
and uses attribute_goals//1 to create a list
of goals that, when called, create equivalent attributes
on the copy. You can use copy_term(X, X, Gs) to reason
about the constraints Gs that X is
involved in. Note that a list of goals is used, since
this is a clean representation
of goals that allows convenient further analysis.
Pitfalls and Errands
Working with attributed variables is very error-prone.
In my experience, no amount of education, research and practice saves
one from making quite elementary mistakes when working with them.
It is all the more important that system implementors make
the lives of Prolog programmers as easy as possible by providing
interfaces that make certain classes of errors impossible.
Implementors are sometimes tempted to provide low-level interfaces
to gain performance at the cost of convenience and correctness.
Bart Demoen is an extremely prolific and highly regarded member of
the Prolog community, and several systems therefore adopted the
approach he proposed.
The interface he proposed and implemented deliberately falls short
in a critical respect. I quote from the paper and highlight the
4 Basic choice III: no pre_unify
The most profound difference between attributed variables in
SICStus Prolog and ECLiPSe is the state of the variable at the
moment the unifcation handler is called.
As an example: assume the attributed variable X has one
attribute A (with module user) and X is unifed
with the integer 666. In SICStus
is called with X still being unbound. In ECLiPSe, the
unify handler is called with A as an argument - X has been
bound to 666 already.
The SICStus Prolog behavior follows  which claims that it
is important to have the variables as if not yet bound.
ECLiPSe people on the other hand (Joachim Schimpf) claim that
this is not needed.
We do not want to take a stand in this issue: we had implemented
at some point the full SICStus Prolog behavior (but on dynamic
attributes of course) and were not convinced that the extra
implementation complexity was worth the gain. However, we were
not impressed by the manuals of SICStus Prolog and ECLiPSe,
which claim that binding the X during a
pre_unify yields unexpected results: in our
opinion (and experience), it just shows that full support for
pre_unify is too cumbersome to implement and maintain
in a full system like SICStus Prolog or ECLiPSe. So we
switched to the ECLiPSe model, but without the compromise to
support pre_unify for compatibility reasons: Occam's
razor is a blessing :-)
Unfortunately, despite the smiley, the above passage was taken
seriously by Prolog implementors, and this limited interface is
what for example SWI-Prolog now provides.
razor, in its most popular version, states that "Entities
are not to be multiplied without necessity".
I ask you, then, why do we have 3 different interfaces for
attributed variables, two of which are clearly less general than
A conservative approach, more than 20 years after the work of
Neumerkel and Holzbaur, could look as follows:
Let us consider 4 widely used Prolog systems, such as SICStus,
GNU-Prolog, ECLiPSe and SWI, and 4 widely used types of
constraints: CLP(H), CLP(FD),
SICStus supports 4 of them. SWI supports 3 of them. ECLiPSe and
GNU-Prolog support 2 of them. Of these systems, which has the
most general interface for attributed variables? Take this
system as the one we want to strive towards. By Occam's
razor, chances are that they have only done what is
needed to support the constraint solvers they provide.
The core shortcoming of the SWI-Prolog interface for attributed
variables is that verify_attributes/3 is not supported,
and only a much less general predicate
called attr_unify_hook/2 is provided instead. Critically,
attr_unify_hook/2 is only
invoked after a variable has already been unified.
This may seem quite innocent at first: After all, the (previous)
attribute of that variable is an argument
of attr_unify_hook/2, so everything we need to know is
available, right? Let us suppose that this is the case
(although it isn't, as we discuss below). Even then,
several variables may at once become instantiated, for
example via a goal like [X,Y] = [0,1]. It is
easy to see that if such a unification
involves n variables, then there are at least
2n different kinds of possible
instantiation patterns that may arise in a single
unification. Nobody is able to think all cases through completely.
An example of a situation that can arise due to simultaneous
unifications is explained in
A highly experienced expert in constraint programming ran into
the same issue
in his own implementation of the dif/2 constraint, even
though it is one of the simplest and most elementary constraints
Prolog systems provide. A few years
later, another mistake
was found and corrected in the implementation of
SWI-Prolog's dif/2 constraint, then another mistake, and to this day, dif/2
remains incorrectly implemented in SWI-Prolog,
even for acyclic terms.
But still, maybe the interface is not to blame, right? Maybe we
have only not tried hard enough to work with the interface. After
all, only poor craftspeople blame their tools, right?
Wrong! If an interface not only makes possible but
downright enforces such mistakes, then it is time to
reconsider the interface. Normally, such issues should be reason
enough to seriously rethink the interface. However, in the Prolog
community, the error-prone nature of this interface is not by
itself enough reason for change. Traditionally, it
is performance that matters most, and who cares about
correctness as long as your system is fast, right?
Therefore, I give you a second argument:
The SWI-Prolog interface is not sufficient to express
important classes of constraint solvers. Consider again the
unification [X,Y] = [0,1]. This means that the attributes
of both variables become unavailable at the same time. It
is true: When attr_unify_hook/2 is run
for X, you have access to its former attribute. But
at that time, you can no longer access the former attribute
of Y via get_attr/3, and in fact you can
no longer even tell that Y was a variable. The next
section shows an example where this is needed, but not possible.
A ZDD is a decision diagram. This means that we can
simply follow the lines of the diagram to arrive at a
truth value. The nodes of a ZDD
are branching variables: If a variable
is 1, then we take the plain line, and
if a variable is 0, then we take
the dotted line. In that respect, a ZDD is like
a Binary Decision Diagram (BDD). However, a ZDD is
interpreted with the following distinguishing twist: If a
variable does not appear on a path that leads
to true, then that variable must be equal
For example, here is a ZDD that represents the truth value
of the Boolean function XxorY:
We can represent a ZDD as a
Prolog term. The truth
values true and false can be represented
as atoms, and an inner node can be represented as
( X → Then ; Else ),
X is a branching variable
Then and Else are nodes.
In analogy to Prolog syntax, Then is taken to mean
that X is 1 (true), and Else means
that X is 0 (false).
For example, the ZDD above can be represented as:
( X -> true ; ( Y -> true ; false ) )
Both variables, X and Y, participate in this
decision diagram. Therefore, to reason about such constraints in
Prolog, it is natural to attach this diagram as
an attribute to both variables. Here is how we can do this
We now consider a series of unifications, and you tell us how you
use your system's interface predicates to arrive at the correct
truth values for X and Y.
As a start, consider the following unification: X = 0.
You reply for example with: That's easy, I simply take a look at
the decision diagram, which now is:
( 0 -> true ; ( Y -> true ; false ) )
Since the first branching variable is now instantiated, it is
clear which branch we must take, so we can replace the whole diagram with:
( Y -> true ; false )
From there, further unifications are easy.
Here is a slightly harder case: X = 1.
This means that the ZDD could be reduced to:
But wait, that's not all! As we explained, a variable that
does not appear in a path to true must be equal
to 0. In this case, Y is such a variable,
so we must set it to 0. But how? Well, one way
to do this is to keep track of all variables that have
so far appeared in constraints, and to represent the ZDD for
example as a pair of terms, such as:
( X -> true ; ( Y -> true ; false ) )-[X,Y]
This means that in the above case, we would end up with:
and from there it is easy to state that Y = 0.
Here is a third case: [X,Y] = [1,1].
And you solve the Minato task by telling us how your
interface predicates can be used to determine that this
unification is not admissible due to the
constraints the variables are involved in.
For comparison, the unification must succeed if the ZDD
is for example:
ZDD = ( X -> Inner ; Inner ), Inner = ( Y -> true ; false )
This illustrates that you cannot look into other
branches of the ZDD to recover any information
Note especially the following: There is no doubt that this issue
can be solved somehow, even with a very primitive interface
for attributed variables. One example would be to duplicate all
kinds of attributes so that they are available redundantly in all
data structures that occur anywhere. However, an interface that
demands such contortions cannot be taken seriously. In addition,
and especially when reasoning with decision diagrams, memory is
often the primary bottleneck, and we therefore want to avoid
copying data also for this reason.
In my view, the key questions
How naturally can an interface be used to solve
How likely are mistakes by application programmers
who use it?
How hard do we want to make our lives for the sake of
negligible additional performance?
In my opinion, we should strive for convenient and general
interface predicates that make mistakes as unlikely as
possible. People have suggested that I "want the SICStus
interface". I would in fact prefer an interface that
provides even stronger guarantees. However, from those
interfaces that are currently available, I consider the SICStus
interface the most desirable, and therefore recommend its
Solution with SICStus Prolog
For completeness, here is a possible solution of the
Minato task, using SICStus Prolog and its very
for attributed variables.
First, of course, let us use
a clean representation of nodes, such as:
a leaf is represented as b(true) or b(false)
an inner node is represented as ( Var -> Then
; Else ), where Then and Else are nodes.
Note in particular that we can now symbolically distinguish
leaves from inner nodes, thanks to the b/1 wrapper
we use for concrete Boolean values.
As a warm-up, let us express the so-called restriction of
a ZDD. This means the relation between one ZDD, and a
new ZDD that arises when the variable Var is
unified with the concrete Boolean truth value Value,
which is either 0 or 1:
zdd_restriction(b(T), _, _, b(T)).
zdd_restriction(( Var0 -> Then0 ; Else0), Var, Value, ZDD) :-
( Var0 == Var ->
( Value =:= 0 -> ZDD = Else0
; Value =:= 1 -> ZDD = Then0
; zdd_restriction(Then0, Var, Value, Then),
zdd_restriction(Else0, Var, Value, Else),
ZDD = ( Var0 -> Then ; Else )
Note that the above method is an extremely inefficient way to
compute the restriction of a ZDD. Making it faster by
using memoization is left as an
We need a single public predicate to demonstrate how our solution
works: variables_set_zdd(Vs, ZDD) shall attach the
given ZDD as an attribute to all variables
in Vs. The attribute shall be of the
form zdd_vs(ZDD, Vs) and store the ZDD as well
as all variables we want to reason about.
In SICStus Prolog, we use library(atts) to declare and
reason about attributes. For example:
We are now ready to implement verify_attributes/3. When a
ZDD is reduced to the leaf node b(true), then
all variables that were not encountered in that branch must
be 0. We enforce this with
a DCG that describes a list of V=0
goals, one for each remaining variable:
A few sample queries are included. In particular, the
Minato task works as desired:
?- ZDD = ( X -> b(true) ; ( Y -> b(true) ; b(false) ) ),
Vs = [X,Y],
Vs = [1,1].
It is clear that the general and declarative SICStus interface has
some performance impact in comparison with more
limited hooks. However, in addition to its generality,
SICStus Prolog is also widely known as one of
the most efficient Prolog systems. The argument
that we should sacrifice correctness for efficiency, even if it
were a sensible one, can therefore not be applied in
We now consider a second task, which I
call Equivalence task, and which also arises in
connection with CLP(B). I hope this task
is useful for you to assess the generality and expressiveness
of your system's interface predicates.
If a variable X, occurring in the expression, is
subsequently unified with some term T, this is
treated as a shorthand for the constraint
| ?- sat(X=:=T).
To implement this in Prolog, an interface for attributed variables
must have the ability to reason about a unification before
it takes place. Again, a different implementation strategy
necessitates highly unnatural and error-prone encodings.
Consider for example the query:
?- sat(X=:=Z), X = X+1.
and ask yourself how this could be handled in your system.
According to the SICStus documentation, it should be
?- sat(X=:=Z), sat(X=:=X+1).
This is satisfiable and should therefore yield for example:
X = Z, Z = 1.
If your system cannot yield such an answer, think about what a
suitable approximation may look like, and how it can be
For example, with your interface predicates for attributed
variables, can you at least somehow distinguish the above
?- sat(X=:=Z), X = ~X.
which ought to be equivalent to:
?- sat(X=:=Z), sat(X =:= ~X).
and hence fail.
Further reading and future work
Attributed variables are typically used to implement constraint
solvers on top of Prolog. This is their most important, but
not their only use case.
Especially for Prolog programs that need destructive assignments
or reason about graphs,
attributed variables are often a good and convenient
representation. Do not get carried away with destructive
assignment though, because it destroys the relational nature of
A good approach is to encapsulate the use of attributed
variables behind more declarative interface predicates of
your libraries. For example, consider the implementation of
Tarjan's algorithm to find the
so-called Strongly Connected Components of
a graph: scc.pl. In
that case, the use of attributed variables allows us to implement
the algorithm with close to asymptotically optimal
To me, the current state of interface predicates for
attributed variables can at best be considered as definitely
deserving much additional work. For instance, what would be
the best way to let different constraint
solvers cooperate in the intersection of their domains?
If you have a good idea for new interface predicates, consider
meta-interpreter that lets you present the
mechanism to the community by extending an existing
Prolog system without the need for low-level
changes. Alternatively, follow the example of Douglas Miles
an existing engine directly.