Yesterday I

read via twitter that the HP researcher Vinay Deolalikar claimed to have

proofen P!=NP. If you never heared about it, the question whether P=PN or not is probably the biggest unsolved problem in computer science and one of the biggest ones in mathematics. It's one of the

seven millenium problems that the Clay Mathematics Institute announced in 2000. Only one of them has been solved yet (Poincaré conjecture) and everyone who solves one gets one million dollar for it.

The P/NP-problem is one of the candidates where many have thought that it may never be solved at all and if this result is true, it's a serious sensation. Obviously, that someone claimed to have solved it does not mean that it is solved. Dozends of pages with complex math need to be peer reviewed by other researchers. Even if it's correct, it will take some time until it'll be widely accepted. I'm far away from understanding the math used there, so I cannot comment on it, but it seems

Vinay Deolalikar is a serious researcher and has published in the area before, so it's at least promising. As I'm currently working on "provable" cryptography and this has quite some relation to it, I'll try to explain it a bit in simple words and will give some outlook what this may mean for the security of your bank accounts and encrypted emails in the future.

P and NP are problem classes that say how hard it is to solve a problem. Generally speaking, P problems are ones that can be solved rather fast - more exactly, their running time can be expressed as a polynom. NP problems on the other hand are problems where a simple method exists to verify if they are correct but it's still hard to solve them. To give a real-world example: If you have a number of objects and want to put them into a box. Though you don't know if they fit into the box. There's a vast number of possibilitys how to order the objects so they fit into the box, so it may be really hard to find out if it's possible at all. But if you have a solution (all objects are in the box), you can close the lit and easily see that the solution works (I'm not entirely sure on that but I think this is a variant of KNAPSACK). There's another important class of problems and that are NP complete problems. Those are like the "kings" of NP problems, their meaning is that if you have an efficient algorithm for one NP complete problem, you would be able to use that to solve all other NP problems.

NP problems are the basis of cryptography. The most popular public key algorithm, RSA, is based on the factoring problem. Factoring means that you divide a non-prime into a number of primes, for example factoring 6 results in 2*3. It is hard to do factoring on a large number, but if you have two factors, it's easy to check that they are indeed factors of the large number by multiplying them. One big problem with RSA (and pretty much all other cryptographic methods) is that it's possible that a trick exists that nobody has found yet which makes it easy to factorize a large number. Such a trick would undermine the basis of most cryptography used in the internet today, for example https/ssl.

What one would want to see is cryptography that is provable secure. This would mean that one can proove that it's really hard (where "really hard" could be something like "this is not possible with normal computers using the amount of mass in the earth in the lifetime of a human") to break it. With todays math, such proofs are nearly impossible. In math terms, this would be a lower bound for the complexity of a problem.

And that's where the P!=NP proof get's interesting. If it's true that P!=NP then this would mean NP problems are definitely more complex than P problems. So this might be the first breakthrough in defining lower bounds of complexity. I said above that I'm currently working on "proovable" security (with the example of RSA-PSS), but provable in this context means that you have core algorithms that you believe are secure and design your provable cryptographic system around it. Knowing that P!=NP could be the first step in having really "provable secure" algorithms at the heart of cryptography.

I want to stress that it's only a "first step". Up until today, nobody was able to design a useful public key cryptography system around an NP hard problem. Factoring is NP, but (at least as far as we know) it's not NP hard. I haven't covered the whole topic of quantum computers at all, which opens up a whole lot of other questions (for the curious, it's unknown if NP hard problems can be solved with quantum computers).

As a final conclusion, if the upper result is true, this will lead to a whole new aera of cryptographic research - and some of it will very likely end up in your webbrowser within some years.