In 1994, an American mathematician named Peter Shor discovered a way to crack the codes that banks, e-commerce platforms and intelligence agencies use to secure their digital information. His technique, dubbed Shor’s algorithm, drastically shortened the time it took to find the prime numbers that underlie public-key cryptography, making codes that typically take thousands of years to break solvable in a matter of months.
But there was a catch: Shor’s algorithm could only run on a quantum computer, and those didn’t exist yet.
A quarter-century and many research dollars later, the world still hasn’t created a quantum computer capable of breaking public-key encryption in any reasonable amount of time. However, those machines are much closer to the horizon today than they were in the mid-1990s.