Shor's Factoring Algorithm and Modular Exponentiation Operators

Robert L. Singleton Jr


We provide a pedagogical presentation of Shor's factoring algorithm, which is a quantum algorithm for factoring very large numbers (of order of hundreds to thousands of bits) in polynomial time. In contrast, all known classical algorithms for the factoring problem take an exponential time to factor such large numbers. Shor's algorithm therefore has profound implication for public-key encryption such as RSA and Diffie–Hellman key exchange. We assume no prior knowledge of Shor's algorithm beyond a basic familiarity with the circuit model of quantum computing. Shor's algorithm contains a number of moving parts, and can be rather daunting at first. The literature is replete with derivations and expositions of Shor's algorithm, but most of them seem to be lacking in essential details, and none of them provide a pedagogical presentation. They require a thicket of appendices and assume a knowledge of quantum algorithms and classical mathematics with which the reader might not be familiar. We therefore start with first principle derivations of the quantum Fourier transform (QFT) and quantum phase estimation (QPE), which are the essential building blocks of Shor's algorithm. We then go on to develop the theory of modular exponentiation (ME) operators, one of the fundamental components of Shor's algorithm, and the place where most of the quantum resources are deployed. We also delve into the number theory that establishes the link between factorization and the period of the modular exponential function. We then apply the QPE algorithm to obtain Shor's factoring algorithm. We also discuss the post-quantum processing and the method of continued fractions, which is used to extract the exact period of the modular exponential function from the approximately measured phase angles of the ME operator. The manuscript then moves on to a series of examples. We first verify the formalism by factoring N=15, the smallest number accessible to Shor's algorithm. We then proceed to factor larger integers, developing a systematic procedure that will find the ME operators for any semi-prime N=p×q (where q and p are prime). Finally, we factor the composite numbers N=21, 33, 35, 143, 247 using the Qiskit simulator. It is observed that the ME operators are somewhat forgiving, and truncated approximate forms are able to extract factors just as well as the exact operators. This is because the method of continued fractions only requires an approximate phase value for its input, which suggests that implementing Shor's algorithm might not be as difficult as first suspected.

Quanta 2023; 12: 41–130.

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ISSN: 1314-7374