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Posted 20 Dec 2013
Licenced CPOL

A Workaround for Type Inference with Expression Templates and Proxies

, 20 Dec 2013
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Here is a workaround for type inference with expression templates and proxies

Back in 2011, Motti Lanzkron wrote an article titled "Inferring Too Much".

The problem brought to light by the article is that C++11 auto interacts badly with expression templates and proxies. Just replacing the type with auto can cause undefined behavior as shown by the following lines of code taken from the article above.

#include <vector>
#include <iostream>
#include <limits>
std::vector<bool> to_bits(unsigned int n) {
    const int bits = std::numeric_limits<unsigned int>::digits;
    std::vector<bool> ret(bits);
    for(int i = 0, mask = 1; i < bits; ++i, mask *= 2)
        ret[i] = (n &  mask) != 0;
    return ret;

int main()
    bool b = to_bits(42)[3];
    auto a = to_bits(42)[3];
    std::cout << std::boolalpha << b << std::endl;
    std::cout << std::boolalpha << a << std::endl;

So how do we fix it?

There has been some talk about adding an operator auto that you could define in your class. However, it might be some time before we get something like that.

Herb Sutter in his "Almost Always Auto" says this is a feature and not a bug, "because you have a convenient way to spell both 'capture the list or proxy' and 'resolve the computation' depending on which you mean".

Here is some code discussing this:

auto a = matrix{...}, b = matrix{...}; // some type that does lazy eval
auto ab = a * b;                       // to capture the lazy-eval proxy
auto c = matrix{ a * b };              // to force computation

Unfortunately, not only is this potentially dangerous, but it can be tedious. What if matrix takes some template parameters such as dimensions and type. Now you have:

auto a = matrix<2,3,double>{...}, b = matrix<3,2,double>{...}; // some type that does lazy eval
auto ab = a * b;                       // to capture the lazy-eval proxy
auto c = matrix<3,3,double>{ a * b };              // to force computation

In this scenario, we are fast losing the benefits of auto. Is there some way that we can have our auto and our expression templates. Here is a workaround, which admittedly is not perfect, but I think it is the best we can do without changing the language.

We are going to simulate operator auto:

namespace operator_auto {
    template <class T> struct operator_auto_type {
        using type = T;

    struct operator_auto_imp {
    template <class T> typename operator_auto_type<T>::type operator=(T &&t){
        return std::forward<T>(t);

namespace {
    operator_auto_imp _auto;

All this does is create a variable _auto that when assigned to it returns whatever was assigned converted to another type which in the default case is the same type.

Then we specialize operator_auto_type like this:

// For my::string for Motti's example
namespace operator_auto {

    template <class T> 
    struct operator_auto_type<my::string::concat<T> > 
       using type = my::string;

// For vector bool
namespace operator_auto {

    template <> 
    struct operator_auto_type<std::vector<bool>::reference>
        using type = bool;

Now to use it, whenever we use auto with an expression that might yield a proxy, we just include an addition assignment to _auto. Here is how we would use it with my::string.

using operator_auto::_auto;
my::string a("hello"), b(" "), c("world"), d("!");
auto s = _auto = a + b + c + d;
auto a1 = _auto = a;
std::cout << s << std::endl;

Notice that for a1, we were are actually assigning to a my::string. In this case, the assignment to _auto will become a no-op.

For full source code for this, take a look at For a runnable version, look at

As for the name _auto, I chose it because it was short and the underscore kind of suggested "flatten" or "collapse" leading to a mnemonic of "collapse auto" which is kind of suggestive of what you want. However, you can easily change it if you wish.

Let me know what you think in the comments. I welcome your comments, suggestions, and ideas.


This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)


About the Author

John Bandela
Software Developer self employed
United States United States
I started programming in Basic in the 4th grade. In 8th grade, I convinced my parents to buy me Visual C++ 1.0. I discovered I really enjoyed C++, and have been programming in it since. I attended the University of Florida and majored in Computer Science graduating with honors with a 4.0 GPA. I then attending Medical School and obtained my Doctor of Medicine degree.

I have used my computer skills to help me in my medical practice. I also enjoy programming in C++ just for fun, trying to discover new ways of solving problems or applying C++ to new areas. My latest interest has been in creating a component system for C++ allowing components created with 1 compiler to be easily used by another compiler.

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Comments and Discussions

QuestionVery good article! Pin
Volynsky Alex22-Dec-13 10:57
professionalVolynsky Alex22-Dec-13 10:57 

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