Gopher Forth and Multiply


In this article we will derive the “Binary Multiplication Algorithm” as a toy motivating example to learn tactics for refactoring recursive functions. At the same time we will develop an intuition for how the algorithm works and get some practice reasoning about tail-recursion.

We will use Golang for its built-in benchmarking, but it should be easy to follow even if you’ve never seen Golang before.

The problem

Suppose we are tasked with implementing a function Multiply which takes as input two positive integers \(a\) and \(n\) and returns their product as output:

$$ \text{Multiply}(a,n) = a \times n \text{ where } a,n \in \{1,2,3,\ldots \} $$

We are not allowed to use the native product operator * in our solution, however bitwise operations, addition, and subtraction are permitted.

Because we will be comparing several different implementations, it is convenient to first define an interface for our solutions to adhere to:

// multiply.go
package multiply

type Multiply func(a int, n int) int

For the remainder of this article we assume \(a\) and \(n\) to be strictly positive integers.

Multiplication as repeated addition

At risk of perpetuating multiplication as repeated addition, we can take advantage of the fact that repeated addition for the natural numbers yields the same result as multiplication, that is:

$$ \text{Multiply}(a,n) = a \times n = \sum_{1}^n a $$

When we translate this to Golang we get:

// multiply.go

func RepeatedAddition(a int, n int) int {
  product := 0
  for i := 1; i <= n; i++ {
    product += a

  return product


To get a feeling for how well our solution performs we can use Golang’s benchmarking tool to compare our solution with the native product operator:

// multiply.go

func NativeProduct(a int, n int) int {
  return a * n
// multiply_test.go
package multiply

// helper function (lowercase first letter) to 
// benchmark any implementation of "Multiply"
func benchmarkMultiply(b *testing.B, a int, n int, multiply Multiply) {
  for i := 0; i < b.N; i++ {
    multiply(a, n)

func BenchmarkNativeProduct(b *testing.B) {
  benchmarkMultiply(b, 17, 28, NativeProduct)

func BenchmarkRepeatedAddition(b *testing.B) {
  benchmarkMultiply(b, 17, 28, RepeatedAddition)

Don’t worry if the benchmarking code is unfamiliar, all we are doing is getting an idea of how fast our code is by running it a bunch of times.

I ran this on my mac for various inputs for \( (a,n) \) and I get:

\( (a,n) \) NativeProduct RepeatedAddition
\( (17,28) \) 2.4 ns/op 13.0 ns/op
\( (19998,12234) \) 2.4 ns/op 4,182 ns/op

We can see that our solution performs poorly compared to the native product operator and does not scale at all for larger inputs.

It seems we need to be more clever in our approach.

Doubling and halving

We tried addition, but now let’s explore bitwise shifts. We can use the fact that a performing a bitwise left-shift on a number \(k\) times is the same as multiplying by it by two, \(k\) times. That is:

$$ a \times 2^k \equiv a \ll k \text{ where } k \in \{0,1,2,\ldots\} $$

Note we use the notation \(\ll\) and \(\gg\) as left and right bitwise-shift operators

Then for the special case where \(n\) is a natural power of 2 we can shift \(a\) to the left \(\log_2{n}\) times to arrive at a correct solution:

$$ \text{Multiply}(a,n) = a \ll log_2{n} \text{ where } n \in \{2^0,2^1,2^2,\ldots \} $$

However this requires performing a logarithm operation to compute \(\log_2{n}\), which is not an operation we are allowed to use in our solution. To avoid logarithms we can turn to the properties of exponents and express our function recursively:

\[ \begin{aligned} \text{Multiply}(a, 2^k) &= a \times 2^k \\ &= a \times (2^1 \times 2^{k-1}) &(x^y \times x^z = x^{y+z}) \\ &= (a \times 2^1) \times 2^{k-1} &(\text{associative law of multiplication}) \\ &= \text{Multiply}(a \times 2^1, 2^{k-1}) &(\text{definition of Multiply}) \\ \end{aligned} \]

In other words we are doubling our first argument and halving our second argument (notice that \(2^{k-1} = 2^k / 2 \) ). By repeating this process \(k\) times we can observe the recursive pattern:

\[ \begin{aligned} \text{Multiply}(a, 2^k) &= \text{Multiply}(a \times 2^1, 2^{k-1}) \\ &= \text{Multiply}(a \times 2^2, 2^{k-2}) \\ &= \text{Multiply}(a \times 2^3, 2^{k-3}) \\ & \ldots \\ &= \text{Multiply}(a \times 2^k, 2^{k-k}) \end{aligned} \]

Notice that since \(k\) is finite, our second argument will eventually reach \(2^0 = 1\), which we can use as our base case. For the non-base case, we will recursively call the function with double the first argument \(a\) and half the second argument \(n\), which we can perform by left and right-shifts respectively:

\[ \text{Multiply}(a,n) = \begin{cases} a & \text{if } n = 1 \\ \text{Multiply}(a\ll1,n\gg1) & \text{if } n > 1 \\ \end{cases} \text{ where } n \in \{2^0,2^1,2^2,\ldots\} \]

In Golang this is as simple as:

// multiply.go

func RecursiveDoubleHalf(a int, n int) int {
  if n == 1 {
    return a

  return RecursiveDoubleHalf(a<<1, n>>1)

Fixing for arbitrary \(n\)

Our new algorithm depends on \(n\) being a power of 2, if we try \(a = 17 \) and \(n = 28\) we get:

fmt.PrintLn(RecursiveDoubleHalf(17,28)) // 272

Which is incorrect.

To see why, observe that every odd number has a 1 as its least significant bit (right-most), conversely every even number has a 0 as its least significant bit. Notice that when we right-shift a number we lose any information that was in the least significant bit as it drops off the end after the shift:

\[ \begin{aligned} 17_{\text{base} 10} \gg 1 &\to 10001_{\text{base} 2} \gg 1 \\ &\to 01000_{\text{base} 2} \\ &\to 8_{\text{base} 10} \end{aligned} \]

Which is the same as if we had first subtracted 1 and then shifted. Thus we can define a right-shift as:

\[ n \gg 1 = \begin{cases} \frac{n}{2} & \text{if } n \text{ is even} \\ \frac{n-1}{2} & \text{if } n \text{ is odd} \end{cases} \]

Our function depends on right-shifting being equal to halving, that is it requires \(n\) to be an even number for every recursive call - however the only numbers that satisfy this condition are natural powers of 2. If \(n\) is not even at any of the recursive calls we will get an incorrect answer, because we are actually computing:

\[ \begin{aligned} \text{Multiply}(a,n) &= \text{Multiply}(a\ll1,n\gg1) \\ &= \text{Multiply}(2a,\frac{n-1}{2}) \\ \end{aligned} \]

We can calculate the correction we need to apply algebraically as:

\[ \begin{aligned} \text{correction} &= \text{correct} - \text{computed} \\ &= (a \times n) - 2a\big( \frac{n-1}{2} \big) \\ &= an - a(n-1) \\ &= an - an+a \\ &= a \end{aligned} \]

So in the case where \(n\) is odd our computed solution will be \(a\) less than the correct answer, fixing our algorithm then means we need to add \(a\) to our result when \(n\) is odd.

To determine if \(n\) is odd we just need to check if its least significant bit is a 1, which we can do by performing a logical AND with \(n\) and 1 and seeing if the result is 1:

\[ \begin{aligned} 17_{\text{base} 10} \text{ AND } 1_{\text{base} 10} &\to 10001_{\text{base} 2} \text{ AND } 00001_{\text{base} 2} \\ &= 00001_{\text{base} 2} \\ &= 1_{\text{base} 10} \\ \\ & \therefore 17 \text{ is odd} \end{aligned} \]

Now we can fix our function:

// multiply.go

func RecursiveDoubleHalf(a int, n int) int {
  if n == 1 {
    return a

  result := RecursiveDoubleHalf(a<<1, n>>1)

  // if n is odd we need to add "a"
  if n&1 == 1 {
    return result + a

  return result

When I run the benchmarking I get:

\( (a,n) \) NativeProduct RepeatedAddition RecursiveDoubleHalf
\( (17,28) \) 2.4 ns/op 13.0 ns/op 14.1 ns/op
\( (19998,12234) \) 2.4 ns/op 4,182 ns/op 45.6 ns/op

So we can see that while our performance has not changed much for small inputs, our new algorithm seems to scale much better for larger inputs.

Understanding what’s happening

We can observe that at each recursive step we are performing the following:

  1. If the last bit of \(n\) is a 1 we add \(a\) to our result
  2. right-shift \(n\) and left-shift \(a\)

We repeat this process until \(n\) has been completely right-shifted, which we say takes \(k\) iterations where \(k\) is one less than the number of bits in \(n\), i.e. \(k = \lfloor \log_2{n} \rfloor\).

Notice that the only time we update our result is when the least significant bit of \(n\) is a 1. Since our \(n\) is shifted right at every iteration, this is equivalent to a left-to-right bitwise scan of \(n\), that is for each iteration \(i\) we are inspecting the \(i^{\text{th}}\) significant bit of \(n\), which we will denote as \(\text{bit}_i(n)\).

For \(n=28\), this gives the sequence:

$$ \text{bit}_i(n) = 0,0,1,1,1 $$

Which is the left-to-right binary representation of 28.

To better understand then how our function works we can construct the following table to compute the solution by hand for \(a=17\) and \(n=28\):

i \(\text{col}_{1} = a \times 2^i\) \(\text{col}_{2} = \text{bit}_i(n)\) \(\text{col}_{3} = \text{col}_{1} \times \text{col}_{2}\)
0 17 0 0
1 34 0 0
2 68 1 68
3 136 1 136
4 272 1 272

$$ 17 \times 28 = \sum \text{col}_{3} = 68 + 136 + 272= 476 $$

Note that \( \text{col}_{3} \) can be calculated as: \( \text{col}_{3} = \begin{cases} 0 & \text{if } \text{col}_{2} = 0 \\ \text{col}_{1} & \text{if } \text{col}_{2} = 1 \\ \end{cases} \)

This turns out to be a pretty quick way to perform multiplication by hand, and indeed this method was used as far back as ancient egypt.

If something about this algorithm seems vaguely familiar to you, it’s because this is actually what is happening in the grade-school multiplication technique you likely learned when you were a child - just that this uses a base 2 numbering system. To see why we can try it by hand:

      10001 =  17
    x 11100 =  28
+ 10001      
  111011100 = 476

Which follows exactly the same pattern as our function - it scans through the each digit of \(n\) left-to-right, in the case where that digit is a zero we add nothing, in the case where that digit is a one we adds a left-shifted \(a\).

Can we do better? Tail recursion

At this point our algorithm performs a number of operations, namely:

  • \(\lfloor \log_2{n} \rfloor\) left-shifts; plus
  • \(\lfloor \log_2{n} \rfloor\) right-shifts; plus
  • an addition operation every time the least significant bit of \(n\) is a 1 - which is just the number of 1’s in the binary representation of \(n\), also known as the population count of \(n\) or \(\text{pop}(n) \).

$$ \text{operations} = 2\lfloor \log_2{n} \rfloor + \text{pop}(n) $$

Which is of the order \(O(\log{n})\).

However on top of these operations we are also performing \(\lfloor \log_2{n} \rfloor\) recursive function calls, which come with a performance cost. To get rid of these function calls we need to first refactor our solution to be tail-recursive.

func TailRecursiveDoubleHalf(a int, n int) int {
  if n == 1 {
    return a

  correction := 0
  if n&1 == 1 {
    correction = a

  return correction + TailRecursiveDoubleHalf(a<<1,n>>1)

Notice that our recursive call is now the final operation in the function. We say that our function is in a deferred tail-recursive state. This is because after the recursive call returns we have some deferred work to do, namely we need to add the correction term.

What we want however is for our function to be in a strict tail-recursive state, that is, we want there to be no additional work to be done after the recursive call.

To see why, we can “plug and chug” our way through our function using \(a=17\) and \(n=28\):

\[ \begin{aligned} \text{Multiply}(17,28) &= 0 + \text{Multiply}(34,14) \\ &= 0 + 0 + \text{Multiply}(68,7) \\ &= 0 + 0 + 68 + \text{Multiply}(136,3) \\ &= 0 + 0 + 68 + 136 + \text{Multiply}(272,1) \\ &= 0 + 0 + 68 + 136 + 272 \\ &= 0 + 0 + 68 + 408 \\ &= 0 + 0 + 476 \\ &= 0 + 476 \\ &= 476 \\ \end{aligned} \]

Here we can clearly see the deferred addition operations accumulating on the left of our recursive call. For our function to be strictly tail-recursive, we need to find a way to collect those deferred operations into our recursive function. That is, we want our function to somehow behave more like this:

\[ \begin{aligned} \text{Multiply}(17,28) &= \text{Multiply}^\prime(0,17,28) \\ &= \text{Multiply}^\prime(0,34,14) \\ &= \text{Multiply}^\prime(0,68,7) \\ &= \text{Multiply}^\prime(68,136,3) \\ &= \text{Multiply}^\prime(204,272,1) \\ &= 476 \\ \end{aligned} \]

This is our desired “plug and chug” output. Notice it uses a new function \(\text{Multiply}^\prime\) which takes 3 arguments, the first of which is acts as an accumulator, capturing those deferred additions in our current implementation. This additional helper function is known as an accumulator function.

Observe that at each recursive call of \(\text{Multiply}^\prime\) the invariant \(\text{acc} + a \times n \) holds, which is the value of the final output. Our new accumulator function can then be defined as: $$ \text{Multiply}^\prime(\text{acc},a,n) = \text{acc} + a \times n $$

We can use the desired “plug and chug” output as instructions for how our accumulator ought to behave. We can see that at each step it appears to check if \(n\) is odd in which case it increases the accumulator argument by \(a\). In the case where \(n=1\) it returns the accumulator as its output, otherwise it recursively calls itself with a left and right shifted \(a\) and \(n\):

\[ \text{Multiply}^\prime(\text{acc},a,n) = \begin{cases} \text{acc} + a & \text{if } n = 1 \\ \text{Multiply}^\prime(\text{acc}+a,a\ll1,n\gg1) & \text{if } n > 1 \text{ and } n \text{ is odd}\\ \text{Multiply}^\prime(\text{acc},a\ll1,n\gg1) & \text{if } n \text{ is even}\\ \end{cases} \]

We can implement this in Golang as follows:

func StrictTailRecursiveDoubleHalf(a int, n int) int {
  return StrictTailRecursiveDoubleHalfAcc(0, a, n)

func StrictTailRecursiveDoubleHalfAcc(acc int, a int, n int) int {
  if n&1 == 1 {
    acc += a

    if n == 1 {
      return acc

  a = a << 1
  n = n >> 1
  return StrictTailRecursiveDoubleHalfAcc(acc, a, n)

Now our solution is strictly tail-recursive. It has no deferred operations after its recursive call and it calls itself with the same arguments. This is effectively the same as a GOTO statement, telling the function to start at the top again.

When I benchmark this new implementation against our previous, we see a performance decrease:

\( (a,n) \) RecursiveDoubleHalf StrictTailRecursiveDoubleHalf
\( (17,28) \) 14.1 ns/op 17.6 ns/op
\( (19998,12234) \) 45.6 ns/op 50.7 ns/op

This performance hit is due to the Golang compiler not providing automatic tail-recursion optimization (at least at time of writing). Fortunately, when our code is in a strict-tail-recursive state, optimization is as straight-forward as replacing the recursive call with a while(true) loop or a GOTO statement - the rest of the code can be left as-is!

In Golang we emulate a while(true) loop by using a for loop without any condition. Also once we have replaced the recursive call with a loop, we no longer need the accumulator function. The final result comes out as:

func IterativeDoubleHalf(a int, n int) int {
  acc := 0

  for {
    if n&1 == 1 {
      acc += a

      if n == 1 {
        return acc

    a = a << 1
    n = n >> 1

Which yields a significant performance boost:

\( (a,n) \) RecursiveDoubleHalf StrictTailRecursiveDoubleHalf IterativeDoubleHalf
\( (17,28) \) 14.1 ns/op 17.6 ns/op 9.18 ns/op
\( (19998,12234) \) 45.6 ns/op 50.7 ns/op 21.9 ns/op


So that’s that! In the end our solution is still much slower than the native operator, but we have come a long way. We’ve seen how to reason about and make solid claims about our recursive code. We have spent some time thinking about our algorithm from different perspectives to get deeper intuition for what is going on. We’ve seen how we can refactor to strict tail recursion via the “plug-and-chug” strategy. We’ve seen how useful it is to benchmark our code to point us in the right direction.

The final implementation still has a lot of wiggle room for optimization, and there are many other multiplication algorithms out there. Exploring those is left as an exercise to the reader.

If you’re interested in this kind of thing, I recommend checking out From Mathematics to Generic Programming which was the inspiration for this article.

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