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A Short Robin Tutorial

This document will lead you through writing a few simple Robin programs.

We will assume you've written some programs in a Lisp-like language such as Scheme or Racket or Irken. If you haven't, it will probably help a lot if you work through one of the many excellent tutorials available for these languages.

Basic usage

First, if you haven't done so, obtain a Robin interpreter for your system. The README gives instructions for obtaining and building the reference interpreter, robin. We'll use it in these examples.

A Robin program is usually saved as a plain text file on your computer. Open up a text editor, enter the following, and save it as difference.robin:

(display (subtract 50 42))

Now if you run the Robin interpreter on this file by typing, in your terminal:

bin/robin difference.robin

You will see it display a number


which is the answer to the question, "What is 50 minus 42?".

Top-level forms

In this small Robin program, display is what's called a top-level form. It's called this because it can only appear at the outermost level; it can't be nested inside something. You can have multiple top-level forms in a file, and Robin will try to do something with all of them. You can edit your file to say

(define one 1)
(display (subtract 8 one))

And if you run it again you will get the output


As of this version of Robin, there are only 4 kinds of top-level forms:

  • display evaluates an expression and outputs the result.
  • define evaluates an expression and assigns a name to it.
  • assert evaluates an expression and causes the interprter to abort with a message, if the expression does not evaluate to #t (true).
  • reactor evaluates some expressions, creates a reactor based on them, and installs it.

Intrinsics vs. the Standard Library

Expressions in Robin are based on a very simple definition, in which there are only 15 intrinsic operations. subtract is one such intrinsic operation. add, by contrast, is not an intrinsic. If you create a program

(define one 1)
(display (add 8 one))

and run it with

bin/robin sum.robin

you'll get an error like

Main.hs: uncaught exception: (unbound-identifier add)

However, Robin does come with a standard library of operations, which are defined in terms of intrinsics. You need to tell Robin to load this standard library before you can use any of the operations in it. So, if you run,

bin/robin pkg/stdlib.robin sum.robin

You'll see the answer you probably expected,



Let's write a factorial function, and compute 5!.

(define fact (fun (self n)
  (multiply n
    (if (> n 1)
      (self self (subtract n 1))
(display (fact fact 5))

multiply is not an intrinsic, so you'll need to run this with

bin/robin pkg/stdlib.robin fact.robin

Some of this definition is probably what you would expect from a recursive definition of factorial in any Lisp-like language. However, some of it is probably not.

It comes from the fact that Robin has no way to make a forward reference — no letrec or equivalent. At the time the definition of fact is being read, the fact symbol is not yet defined, so fact cannot call itself directly.

So we give fact a way to call itself by following a convention: whenever fact is called (including when fact needs to call itself), the fact function itself is passed as the first argument to fact. By convention we call this parameter self.

This is related to the so-called Y combinator.


Even though they are defined in Robin, parts of the Standard Library are often implemented in some other language. This is because their definition in Robin is intended to be correct and normative, not necessarily efficient. If the implementation of the operation in some other language has the same semantics as the Robin definition of the operation, it can be used interchangeably, and more efficiently.

In particular, the reference implementation exposes, by default, a set of "builtins" which map to the "small" subset of the standard library. You can turn them off with:

bin/robin --no-builtins pkg/stdlib.robin fact.robin

If you do this, you'll see

Main.hs: uncaught exception: (unbound-identifier fun)

You might conclude from this that fun is not a built-in — and you'd be right! Unlike basically every other Lisp-like language, in Robin, fun is a derived form. It's implemented as a macro.


(To be written).


(To be written).