Simple Pattern Matching

Consider a simple pattern matcher, such as the one defined in pat-match.lisp. This is basically the unifier in Artificial Intelligence Programming, simplified to handle only patterns against constant forms, rather than patterns against patterns. Some example calls:

> (pat-match '(?x b ?y) '(a b c))
(((?Y C) (?X A)))
> (pat-match '(?x b ?x) '(a b c))
> (pat-match '(?x b ?x) '(a b a))
(((?X A)))


Pattern matching is the basis of a great deal of AI programs. Patterns are easy to write, compact, easily extended, and so on.

A serious AI program will have hundreds or thousands of patterns, and may apply a significant fraction of those patterns while solving a problem. As a result, time spent matching patterns may dominate the run-time of an AI program.

There are two approaches to reducing this cost:

These approaches are independent. It's usually best to do the first one first. Then, if pattern matching is still the bottleneck in your application, even with the reduced number of patterns to be matched, compile them.

Patterns versus Code

To see the magnitude of the costs involved in pattern matching, consider these two functions. The first calls the pattern matcher:

(defun using-pat (input)
  (pat-match '(?x b ?x) input))

The second produces the same results for any given input, but is coded quite differently:

(defun using-code (input)
  (and (consp input)
       (let ((blists (match-variable '?x (car input) '(nil))))
         (and (consp (cdr input))
              (eql 'b (cadr input))
              (consp (cddr input))
              (null (cdddr input))
              (match-variable '?x (caddr input) blists)))))

using-pat is clearly more compact, readable, and maintainable.

using-code however can be significantly more efficient. Macintosh Common Lisp (version 3) gives the following results:

> (time (dotimes (i 100) (using-pat '(a b c))))
(DOTIMES (I 100) (USING-PAT '(A B C))) took 164 milliseconds (0.164 seconds) to run.
Of that, 9 milliseconds (0.009 seconds) were spent in The Cooperative Multitasking Experience.
 6,400 bytes of memory allocated.
> (time (dotimes (i 100) (using-code '(a b c))))
(DOTIMES (I 100) (USING-CODE '(A B C))) took 13 milliseconds (0.013 seconds) to run.
 3,200 bytes of memory allocated.

For this simple 3-part pattern, using-code is over 10 times faster than using-pat!

Why is using-code so much faster?

Much of the work that pat-match does is looking at the pattern. Effectively, pattern matching involves these steps:

  1. check to see if the pattern is a variable
  2. if so, check to see if it can be bound to the input
  3. else, check to see if the pattern is an atom
  4. if so, check to see if it's equal to the input
  5. else, check to see if the pattern is a list
  6. if so, check to see if the input is a list
  7. if so, recursively apply the above steps to the car and cdr of the pattern and input

The hand-written code in using-code omits the run-time checks in Steps 1, 2, and 3. Every call to match-variable is known in eql advance. Furthermore, there's no recursive calls to pat-match because it's already known when the pattern is a list.

As a result, there are fewer conditional checks, fewer function calls, and the function calls are all explicit and compilable into machine code before the code is run.

Getting the best of both worlds

Looking at the run-times for using-pat and using-code, it's clear which code we'd rather run. On the other hand, looking at their definitions, it's also clear which code we'd rather write.

Since we clearly don't want to have to write code like that in using-code, we get the computer to do it for us.

The idea behind compiling patterns is simple. In most cases, the patterns in a knowledge base are static, i.e., known in advance. Therefore, we can

expand-pat.lisp defines a simple pattern compiler, capable of turning the patterns accepted by pat-match.lisp into the compilable Lisp code.

We'll first look at how expand-pat works, then at several ways in which it can be used.

How to Compile Patterns

Compiling a pattern turns out to be quite simple. It's very much like defining a macro expansion.

As with macros, we need to keep track of two types of variables:

Notice that pat-match had the same three variables. The difference is that pat is now a compile-time variable. It won't exist at run-time.

Now we need to figure out what Lisp code to generate for each kind of pattern elements. Lisp s-expression patterns have only three elements:

The top-level compiler function, expand-pat, simply calls functions for each of these cases. ("One function to a function" -- the function of expand-pat is to select what other function to run.)

Variables are easy to compile. They just become calls to match-variable, e.g.,

> (expand-pat '?x)
(match-variable '?x input blists)

Atoms are equally easy to compile. They just become calls to eql that return blists if successful:

> (expand-pat 'a)
(and (eql 'a input) blists)

The only tricky bit is with patterns that are lists. Obviously, we can recursively expand the car and cdr of the pattern into Lisp code, but how to we combine the two pieces of code that result?

What we want is that, at run-time,

The following Lisp template achieves these two goals:

(let ((blists
         (let ((input (car input)))
          -- put pattern CAR code here --))
        (input (cdr input)))
    -- put pattern CDR code here --)

This will evaluate the code from the two parts of the pattern in contexts with the desired values for input and blists.

Normally, it's a bad idea to reuse variables like this, but the generated code is not meant for human eyes, and doing it this way means the pattern expander can always count on input and blists being bound to the right things.

How to get compiled patterns into code

We can now see how to turn patterns into Lisp code. One big problem remains, however. How do we turn Lisp code into callable Lisp functions? In particular, expand-pat doesn't generate a function, it generates a list, e.g.,

> (expand-pat '?x)

It's not in function form, and input and blists free variables.

compile-pat does a little better:

> (compile-pat '?x)

but this is still just a list, not a function.

It can be converted into a function using eval, e.g.,

> (eval (compile-pat '?x))
#<Anonymous Function #xB22986>


The solution is to look at where our patterns are being defined. For example, suppose we have a file of "if--then" rules, where we link patterns to code for a robot to execute if some input command matches the pattern, e.g.,

(defrule put-rule
  (put-in ?x ?y)
  => (move-hand-to ?x)
     (move-hand-into ?y)

Without compiling, we'd have a robot command interpreter that would look something like this:

(defun run-robot (input)
  (dolist (rule *rules*)
    (let ((blists (pat-match (rule-test rule) input)))
      (unless (null blists)
        (do-actions (instantiate (rule-actions rule)

defrule would simply be

(defmacro defrule (name test => &rest actions)
  `(add-rule :test ',test :actions ',actions))

To use a pattern compiler, we'd redefine defrule as follows:

(defmacro defrule (name test => &rest actions)
  `(add-rule :test ,(compile-pat test) :actions ',actions))

Now, when our rule file is compiled, all the patterns become compiled Lisp functions.

Note: we also have to redefine the robot interpreter:

(defun run-robot (input)
  (dolist (rule *rules*)
    (let ((blists (funcall (rule-test rule) input)))
      (unless (null blists)
        (do-actions (instantiate (rule-actions rule)

Increasing maintainability of compiled patterns

One problem with compiling patterns is that rules become hard to read and trace. We no longer see anything that tells us what the rule is looking for, because the patterns are now anonymous functions.

Therefore, it's usually a good idea to modify our defrule to store both the pattern and the function. The former is for debugging, the latter is for efficiency.

(defmacro defrule (test => &rest actions)
  `(add-rule :test ,(compile-pat test)
             :pattern ',test
             :actions ',actions))
Faculty: Chris Riesbeck
Time: Monday, Wednesday, Friday: 1pm - 2pm
Location:Annenberg G15


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