In Samuel Wagstaff's excellent book The Joy of Factoring (see

here for a review) there is a discussion towards the end about why factoring algorithms have not made much progress recently. I

paraphrase it:

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The time complexities of the fastest known algorithms can be expressed as a formula of the following form (where N is the number to be factored):

(*) exp(c(ln N)^t (ln(ln N))^{1-t})

for some constants c and for 0 < t < 1. For the Quadratic Sieve (QS) and Elliptic Curve Method (ECM) t=1/2. For the Number Field Sieve (NFS) t=1/3. The reason for this shape for the time complexity is the requirement of finding one or more smooth numbers (numbers that have only small primes as factors).

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This got me thinking: Okay, there may not be a drastic improvement anytime soon but what about just improving t? Is there a mathematical reason

why an algorithm with (say) t=1/4 has not been discovered? In an earlier era I would have had to write a letter to Dr. Wagstaff to ask him. Buy an envelope, buy a stamp, find his address, the whole nine yards (my younger readers should ask their grandparents what envelopes and stamps were). In the current era I emailed him. And got a response.

Samuel Wagstaff:

The fastest known factoring algorithms find smooth numbers subject to parameter choice(s). In all these algorithms, one parameter choice is the smoothness bound B: a number is smooth if all its prime factors are < B. The NFS has the degree of a polynomial as an additional parameter.

One analyzes the complexity of these algorithms by estimating the total work required (to find enough smooth numbers) for an arbitrary parameter choice using Dickman's function to predict the density of smooth numbers. Then one uses calculus to find the parameter choice(s) that minimize the total work function. Calculus also yields the optimal values for the parameter(s).

If you have k parameters to choose, you will get the time complexity (*) with t = 1/(1+k). If you have no parameters (k = 0),you get (*) with t = 1, basically exponential time N^c. With one parameter to optimize, as in CFRAC (continued fractions algorithm) and QS, you get t = 1/2. NFS has two parameters, so t = 1/3. ECM also has t = 1/2 because it uses only one parameter, the smoothness bound B. If you want to get t = 1/4, you have to find a third parameter to optimize. No one has found one yet. That is the answer to your question.

Note that some choices made in some factoring algorithms don't count as parameters. For example, the number of polynomials used in the multiple-polynomial quadratic sieve, and the upper bound on large primes kept, don't affect t. They affect the running time only in making c smaller. So you have to find a third parameter that matters in order to get (*) with t = 1/4. Or find three completely different new parameters.