Semantic Types, Primitives, and Visualizations#


Some of the discussion in this section uses semantic type as a synonym for artifact class. While closely related, we’re working on clarifying our language to distinguish these ideas. We haven’t reviewed/updated this section for this yet.

If you’re unfamilar with the various ways that the word type is used in the context of QIIME 2, we recommend reading Semantic types, data types, file formats, and artifact classes before this document. This document provides a deep dive into semantic types, primitives, and visualizations in QIIME 2: in other words, descriptors of the various inputs and/or outputs to QIIME 2 Actions.

An Analogy#

Suppose we were interested in modeling a system in which there were hands, utensils and tasks. We are trying to determine which utensils can be used to complete which tasks. Here utensils are like QIIME 2 artifacts and tasks are QIIME 2 actions. Imagine then, that this hand (unlike yours or mine) is not intelligent and will grasp anything to carry out its work without further consideration. The hand then, represents the computer.

To make this example more concrete, let’s suppose we wanted to write a note. We provide to the hand a fork, and ask it to return to us a note. Accepting the fork, the hand blithely tears the paper into shreds and hands you what remains, considering its mission to be complete.

This is not ideal.

Instead, lets give the hand some rules it can follow to determine if it should perform a task with a utensil. For example, we would have prefered it use a pencil when writing a note instead of a fork. To describe this more formally, we might say that a task “write note” requires a pencil and returns a note:

write note : pencil -> note

Repeating the above situation, we provide a fork to the hand and ask it to write a note. The hand observes that a fork cannot be used to make a note as it is not a pencil, and our paper remains unshredded (though still blank).

However, if we were to write a note with a pen, according to the above rules, we would also be refused, as only pencils are allowed to write notes. Instead of helping us, the type annotation above seems to be in the way.

Finding a way to fix this mismatch while still constraining inputs is the fundamental goal of a type system and is where a lot of complexity arises. There is also a lot of freedom in implementation, some type systems are as strict as the above, and provide little expressive power, others provide a great deal (becoming Turing-complete in the process) at the cost of complexity.

Ultimately it is important to remember what the purpose is. A type system should abstract away details that the computer needs but which impede a person’s comprehension of a system. A good type system should be a compromise between the fuzzy (and indistinct) world of language that people understand, and robust formal systems that computers can use.

Defining a Type#

In QIIME 2 there are 3 kinds of types, all of which use the same underlying grammar. Only one of these kinds can be extended, the Semantic Type. The other two, Primitive Type and Visualization, are built into the framework.

Semantic types are the only kind that can be extended, so let’s start there with our example from before.

To create a type, we use the SemanticType factory:

Pencil = SemanticType('Pencil')

That’s it! Let’s define some more:

Pen = SemanticType('Pen')
Fork = SemanticType('Fork')
Spoon = SemanticType('Spoon')
Chalk = SemanticType('Chalk')

To let QIIME 2 know that these new types exist, we’ll need to register them on our plugin object with register_semantic_types:

plugin.register_semantic_types(Pencil, Pen, Fork, Spoon, Chalk)

Now QIIME 2 is aware of these types and we can use them.

There are only 5 types right now, but imagine we had dozens, it might get a bit hard to keep them all straight. To make it easier for us to talk about them, we can try to group similar types together. Looking at our type, we seem to have two broad categories so far, writing and dining utensils. Let’s define some composite types to group them:

Dining = SemanticType('Dining', field_names=['utensil'],
                      field_members={ 'utensil': (Fork, Spoon) })

Writing = SemanticType('Writing', field_names=['implement'],
                       field_members={ 'implement': (Pen, Pencil, Chalk) })

And of course we should register these as well:

plugin.register_semantic_types(Dining, Writing)

Before explaining what the new parameters are, let’s use these and circle back:



Since we don’t have many types, this may look a little silly, but now we can talk about dining and writing utensils as broad groups. What happens if we try to mix these? Let’s make some dining chalk (gross!):


It produces the following exception:

Traceback (most recent call last):
  File "<stdin>", line 1, in <module>
  File "/home/evan/workspace/qiime2/qiime2/qiime2/core/type/", line 68, in __getitem__
  File "/home/evan/workspace/qiime2/qiime2/qiime2/core/type/", line 184, in _validate_field_
    raise TypeError("%r is not a variant of %r." % (value, varfield))
TypeError: Chalk is not a variant of Dining.field['utensil'].

It appears chalk is off the menu. Let’s go back over the definition for Dining:

Dining = SemanticType('Dining', field_names=['utensil'],
                      field_members={ 'utensil': (Fork, Spoon) })

Unlike the simpler types, this adds field_names and field_members, if we were to look at Dining on its own:


We see:


This {utensil} is the field name, because field_names is a list, we could have more than one, letting us get combinatorical, but that usually isn’t necessary.

Looking at field_members we see that for the field named utensil there are two permitted variants: Fork and Spoon. This is why creating Dining[Chalk] didn’t work so well, Chalk isn’t a variant of Dining’s field utensil.

Extending a Type#

Suppose we were satisfied with the above vocabulary of utensils. So much so, we considered ourselves to have described all of the utensils we would ever need. Obviously that isn’t going to be true, so there should be a way for other plugins to define new types, while still being able to organize them into our existing hierarchy of labels.

A seperate plugin could then define something like this:

Knife = SemanticType('Knife', variant_of=[Dining.field['utensil']])

Breaking this down, it is similar to some of the earlier invocations of the SemanticType factory, but there’s a new argument for variant_of which seems to be providing a list of fields from other composite types. This means a plugin can extend existing types as needed. In this case, we’ve suggested that in addition to forks and spoons, there are knives.

We can also create new categories and types that belong to more than one category. Let’s create a category for kitchen utensils. A knife has already been defined, but you wouldn’t cook with a steak knife, and you wouldn’t eat with a chef’s knife, so there’s more we can add to the knife’s story:

Kitchen = SemanticType('Kitchen', field_names=['utensil'],
                       field_members={ 'utensil': [Knife] })

Spatula = SemanticType('Spatula', variant_of=[Kitchen.field['utensil']])
PastryBag = SemanticType(
    'PastryBag', variant_of=[Kitchen.field['utensil'], Writing.field['implement']])

This creates a new Kitchen category, and adds Knife as a member. It also adds Spatula to Kitchen and adds PastryBag to both Kitchen and Writing. In case you don’t know what a pastry bag is (like me), it’s how you would write “Happy Birthday” on a cake. Just as not all knives are the same, not all pastry bags are well suited to writing (some are better for making decorative frosting-flowers).


We should register these before we forget:

other_plugin.register_semantic_types(Knife, Kitchen, Spatula, PastryBag)

Primitive Types#

Primitive types are the other main kind of type you’ll use in QIIME 2. These closely match their associated data types making them simple to work with, but they also have a few extra tricks up their sleeves to make it possible to automatically generate rich user interfaces. The purpose of these types is to explain what kinds of parameters can be provided to an action.

There are a few basic types:

These work essentially as you would expect, an Int holds an integer, a Str holds a unicode string. They are capitalized to make differentiating them from their Python counterparts (int and str) simpler.

There are a few collection types:

Each of these allows you to provide one of the above basic types to their {elements} field.

There are also some metadata types:

From these we can construct simple expressions like:


Of course, just writing down a type isn’t necessarily useful unless we can use it for something. Let’s do that now:

# These are true:
assert      1 in Int
# These are not:
assert not  "banana" in Int
assert not  0.5 in Int

# True:
assert      "banana" in Str
# Not true:
assert not  1 in Str

# True:
assert      [1, 2, 3] in List[Int]
# Not true:
assert not  ['a', 'b', 'c'] in List[Int]

# True:
assert      ['a', 'b', 'c'] in List[Str]
# Not true:
assert not  [1, 2, 3] in List[Str]

While these are all useful constructs, real-world user input must often be constrained to just a few valid strings, or a real number bounded from zero to one. To express these ideas we need a little bit more.

Refining a Type#

A refinement type is a type that possesses a predicate which further constrains the domain of a type. Thats a formal definition anyway. The important piece is the predicate, which is a boolean “function” describing whether a given instance is in the domain, or out of the domain. This means we can refine the type to suite our needs.

Suppose we were a graphical interface. A common UI element is a dropdown list containing predetermined choices. We can express that with a primitive type!


Let’s see an example of this, using the Choices predicate:

# These are Python objects, so we can assign to variables:
dropdown = Str % Choices({'banana', 'apple', 'pear'})

assert      'banana' in dropdown
assert not  'grape' in dropdown
assert not  0.5 in dropdown

The % operator adds a predicate like Choices to a type. You can read it as “string modulo choices” in your head if you like. It almost makes sense.

You can see how a graphical interface could inspect this type and automatically generate a dropdown list containing “banana”, “apple”, and “pear”.

Let’s try something harder, suppose we wanted to describe some checkboxes, where the choices can be selected at most once, but multiple different choices are allowed:

checkboxes = Set[Str % Choices({'banana', 'apple', 'pear'})]

assert      {'banana'} in checkboxes
assert      {'apple', 'banana'} in checkboxes
assert not  {'banana', 'grape'} in checkboxes
assert not  {1, 2, 3} in checkboxes
assert not  'banana' in checkboxes

We might read that as “A set of strings modulo the choices of banana, apple, and pear”. It is a mouthful, but we’ve just described an entire UI element in a single line.

Additionally, this is abstract, we never actually asked for a checkbox. So the interface can make its own decision about how best to represent this type in its UI. For example a command line interface cannot show checkboxes, but it might have an interactive dialog, or it may just accept multiple arguments for the parameter. A programmatic interface may simply accept a set object instead. It is up to the interface to make the best choice it can. The plugin developer does not need to worry about the representation.

Interface Developer Note:

An easy way to transfer (or dispatch on) a type is to use the .to_ast() method which will provide a JSON structure describing the type in a machine-friendly representation.

For example:

import json

print(json.dumps(checkboxes.to_ast(), indent=2, sort_keys=True))
  "fields": [
      "fields": [],
      "name": "Str",
      "predicate": {
        "choices": [
        "name": "Choices",
        "type": "predicate"
      "type": "primitive"
  "name": "Set",
  "predicate": {},
  "type": "collection"


Another predicate we can use is Range:

proportion = Float % Range(0, 1, inclusive_end=True)

assert      0 in proportion
assert      0.5 in proportion
assert      1 in proportion
assert not  -1.5 in proportion
assert not  1.5 in proportion
assert not 'banana' in proportion

This can be combined with Int as well. As before we can nest these kinds of expressions inside of Set and List.

Semantic Properties#

Leaving behind the primitive types and returning the the semantic types, there is a final trick we can use to constrain the semantics of a type. It is to use the Properties predicate. This predicate can only be attached to semantic types, so we usually call them semantic properties of the type.

Thinking back to our example involving utensiles, there was a type named:


Suppose we were a plugin that specialized in cutting things, with actions such as filleting fish, paring fruit, etc. To other plugins, the distinction between different kinds of cutlery might be uninteresting. To us, however, cutting things is what we do. We wouldn’t fillet a fish without a fillet knife. The nomenclature discussed so far lacks that granularity.

In a perfect world, we would extol the virtues of being specific about cutlery, suggesting others adopt a new category Cutlery[{knife}] to help better model the world of things-hands-can-use. Building consensus can be slow, though, and you are still interested in inter-operating with other plugins (even if they don’t understand why anyone would need more than one kind of knife).

To fix this, you can add a property:

Kitchen[Knife % Properties('fillet')]

What this means is that you’ve created a new subtype of Knife using the label “fillet”. There aren’t any rules for recognizing a fillet knife, so its something that has to be explicitly attached (but that is the case with all semantic types).

There can additionally be more than one property on a type:

Kitchen[Knife % Properties(include=['fillet', 'sharp'])]
Kitchen[Knife % Properties(include=['paring'], exclude=['sharp'])]

Now we can describe things like a sharp fillet knife or a dull paring knife. To illustrate how these are used, we need to talk more about subtyping.

Semantic Subtyping#

A subtype is some type that is substitutable for another. Here’s another way to think about it: the domain of the subtype exists entirely within the domain of the supertype. Anywhere you could use a supertype, a subtype will suffice.

There are two ways to create this relation: with a semantic property (described above), or with a union operator: |. In order to use a subtyping relation, we also need an operator to test the relation, for that we can use <= and >= (which matches the Python set API).

Let’s try it out:

assert      Spoon <= Spoon  # is spoon a subtype of spoon?
assert      Spoon >= Spoon  # is spoon a supertype of spoon?
assert not  Fork <= Spoon   # is fork a subtype of spoon?
assert not  Fork >= Spoon   # is fork a supertype of spoon?

Here we have the makings of equality and inequality. We see that any instance of a Spoon can be substituted wherever a Spoon is required (which is obvious enough), and we also see that a Fork will not do, when a Spoon is needed (soup comes to mind).


Of course, this subtyping relationship isn’t very interesting, let’s use the union operator to construct a supertype:

assert      Spoon <= Spoon | Fork
assert      Fork <= Spoon | Fork
# The relationship has direction:
assert not  Spoon >= Spoon | Fork
assert not  Fork  >= Spoon | Fork
# And of course, unrelated things are not equal
assert not  Knife <= Spoon | Fork
assert not  Knife >= Spoon | Fork

Using this mechanism we can define actions that accept a broad range of types, while still being specific about which types are known to work. Also instead of using A <= B <= A to test equality, we can use .equals (the operator is reserved for hash-equality).

We can also evaluate more sophisticated expressions:

assert not  Dining[Knife].equals(Kitchen[Knife])
assert      Dining[Knife] <= Kitchen[Knife] | Dining[Knife]
# Union types also have subtyping relations:
assert      Writing[Pencil] | Writing[Pen] <= Writing[Pencil] | Writing[Pen] | Writing[Chalk]
# or more concisely:
assert      Writing[Pencil | Pen] <= Writing[Pencil | Pen | Chalk]

In QIIME 2, subtyping and equality are extensional, meaning that the order and form do not matter, only the meaning.

In other words, these expressions are the same:

assert  (Writing[Pencil] | Writing[Pen]).equals(Writing[Pen | Pencil])
assert  Writing[Pencil | Pen].equals(Writing[Pen | Pencil])


Let us return now to the other way of constructing a subtyping relation, the semantic property. We had the following definitions which we’ll assign to a variable, since they are lengthy:

sharp_fillet = Kitchen[Knife % Properties(include=['fillet', 'sharp'])]
dull_paring  = Kitchen[Knife % Properties(include=['paring'], exclude=['sharp'])]

How should these relate to a plain Kitchen[Knife]? Well, because we’ve added information about the knife, we’ve refined the domain, and so we have a subtype. In other words, our fancy knifes can be used wherever a normal knife can be used. The way to think about this is we haven’t created something new, paring knives and fillet knives were always in the set of Kitchen[Knife], but until we added the property we were unable to distinguish them.

assert  sharp_fillet <= Kitchen[Knife]
assert  dull_paring  <= Kitchen[Knife]

Additionally, the combination is still a smaller domain than the domain of all kitchen knives:

assert  sharp_fillet | dull_paring <= Kitchen[Knife]

What is most important is that an action that needs something specific can avoid receiving an over-general type. For example, consider this action:

sharpen knife : Kitchen[Knife % Properties(exclude=['sharp'])
    -> Kitchen[Knife % Properties(include=['sharp'])

This rather intuitively swaps the property of not-being sharp for the property of being sharp. We can see how the subtyping relation allows the action to enforce this:

assert      dull_paring  <= Kitchen[Knife % Properties(exclude=['sharp'])]
assert not  sharp_fillet <= Kitchen[Knife % Properties(exclude=['sharp'])]

One consequence of this is that an unadorned type like Kitchen[Knife] is not known to be either sharp or dull (remember it is actually supertype of both of these).

# Can't substitute any-old knife for a dull one, some of them are sharp.
assert not  Kitchen[Knife] <= Kitchen[Knife % Properties(exclude=['sharp'])]

As a matter of practice, it would probably be easier for everyone if “sharpen knife” were to just re-sharpen the already-sharp knife.


There is another kind of type known as the intersection type. Currently QIIME 2 implements this only in a very limited way. The idea is that you might have an instance that is simultanously many different types. For example, a spork is both a fork and a spoon (and good at neither).

Nonetheless, someday you might write something like this:

# This doesn't work yet
Spork = Fork & Spoon

assert  Spork <= Fork
assert  Spork <= Spoon

As you can see, the relationship is inverted from a union. Why bring this up, if the above isn’t implemented? First, this syntax would be a convenient way to describe compound artifacts, where a lot of data is bundled up nicely in a single zip file. Second, this is how semantic properties work.

When you are dealing with multiple semantic properties, each property is intersected with the others, meaning that an artifact that has multiple properties associated with it is considered to have each one. This means these expressions are the same:

Knife % Properties(['fillet', 'sharp'])
# is the same as:
(Knife % Properties('fillet')) & (Knife % Properties('sharp'])
# if `&` was implemented

It also means that this is true:

assert  Knife % Properties(['fillet', 'sharp']) <= Knife % Properties(['fillet']) <= Knife

The more information we add, the more specific our knife (and the smaller our domain).