The Karatsuba algorithm is a fast multiplication algorithm. It was discovered by Anatoly Karatsuba in 1960 and published in 1962. It reduces the multiplication of two n-digit numbers to at most single-digit multiplications in general (and exactly when n is a power of 2). It is therefore faster than the classical algorithm, which requires n2 single-digit products. For example, the Karatsuba algorithm requires 310 = 59,049 single-digit multiplications to multiply two 1024-digit numbers (n = 1024 = 210), whereas the classical algorithm requires (210)2 = 1,048,576 (a speedup of 17.75 times).
The Karatsuba algorithm was the first multiplication algorithm asymptotically faster than the quadratic "grade school" algorithm. The Toom–Cook algorithm is a faster generalization of Karatsuba's method, and the Schönhage–Strassen algorithm is even faster, for sufficiently large n.
The standard procedure for multiplication of two n-digit numbers requires a number of elementary operations proportional to , or in big-O notation. Andrey Kolmogorov conjectured that the classical algorithm was asymptotically optimal, meaning that any algorithm for that task would require elementary operations.
In 1960, Kolmogorov organized a seminar on mathematical problems in cybernetics at the Moscow State University, where he stated the conjecture and other problems in the complexity of computation. Within a week, Karatsuba, then a 23-year-old student, found an algorithm (later it was called "divide and conquer") that multiplies two n-digit numbers in elementary steps, thus disproving the conjecture. Kolmogorov was very agitated about the discovery; he communicated it at the next meeting of the seminar, which was then terminated. Kolmogorov did some lectures on the Karatsuba result at the conferences all over the world (see, for example, "Proceedings of the international congress of mathematicians 1962", pp. 351–356, and also "6 Lectures delivered at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Stockholm, 1962") and published the method in 1962, in the Proceedings of the USSR Academy of Sciences. The article had been written by Kolmogorov and contained two results on multiplication, Karatsuba's algorithm and a separate result by Yuri Ofman; it listed "A. Karatsuba and Yu. Ofman" as the authors. Karatsuba only became aware of the paper when he received the reprints from the publisher.
The basic step of Karatsuba's algorithm is a formula that allows one to compute the product of two large numbers and using three multiplications of smaller numbers, each with about half as many digits as or , plus some additions and digit shifts. This basic step is, in fact, a generalization of Gauss's complex multiplication algorithm, where the imaginary unit i is replaced by a power of the base.
Let and be represented as -digit strings in some base . For any positive integer less than , one can write the two given numbers as
where and are less than . The product is then
These formulae require four multiplications and were known to Charles Babbage. Karatsuba observed that can be computed in only three multiplications, at the cost of a few extra additions. With and as before one can calculate
which holds, since
An issue that occurs, however, when computing is that the above computation of and may result in overflow (will produce a result in the range ), which require a multiplier having one extra bit. This can be avoided by noting that
This computation of and will produce a result in the range of . This method may produce negative numbers, which require one extra bit to encode signedness, and would still require one extra bit for the multiplier. However, one way to avoid this is to record the sign and then use the absolute value of and to perform an unsigned multiplication, after which the result may be negated when both signs originally differed. Another advantage is that even though may be negative, the final computation of only involve additions.
To compute the product of 12345 and 6789, where B = 10, choose m = 3. Then we decompose the input operands using the resulting base (Bm = 1000), as:
- 12345 = 12 · 1000 + 345
- 6789 = 6 · 1000 + 789
Only three multiplications, which operate on smaller integers, are used to compute three partial results:
- z2 = 12 × 6 = 72
- z0 = 345 × 789 = 272205
- z1 = (12 + 345) × (6 + 789) − z2 − z0 = 357 × 795 − 72 − 272205 = 283815 − 72 − 272205 = 11538
We get the result by just adding these three partial results, shifted accordingly (and then taking carries into account by decomposing these three inputs in base 1000 like for the input operands):
- result = z2 · (Bm)2 + z1 · (Bm)1 + z0 · (Bm)0, i.e.
- result = 72 · 10002 + 11538 · 1000 + 272205 = 83810205.
Note that the intermediate third multiplication operates on an input domain which is less than two times larger than for the two first multiplications, its output domain is less than four times larger, and base-1000 carries computed from the first two multiplications must be taken into account when computing these two subtractions.
If n is four or more, the three multiplications in Karatsuba's basic step involve operands with fewer than n digits. Therefore, those products can be computed by recursive calls of the Karatsuba algorithm. The recursion can be applied until the numbers are so small that they can (or must) be computed directly.
In a computer with a full 32-bit by 32-bit multiplier, for example, one could choose B = 231 = 147483648, and store each digit as a separate 32-bit binary word. Then the sums x1 + x0 and y1 + y0 will not need an extra binary word for storing the carry-over digit (as in 2carry-save adder), and the Karatsuba recursion can be applied until the numbers to multiply are only one-digit long.
Asymmetric Karatsuba-like formulae
Karatsuba's original formula and other generalizations are themselves symmetric. For example, the following formula computes
with 6 multiplications in , where is the Galois field with two elements 0 and 1.
where and . We note that addition and subtraction are the same in fields of characteristic 2.
This formula is symmetrical, namely, it does not change if we exchange and in and .
where and .
It is asymmetric because we can obtain the following new formula by exchanging and in and .
where and .
Karatsuba's basic step works for any base B and any m, but the recursive algorithm is most efficient when m is equal to n/2, rounded up. In particular, if n is 2k, for some integer k, and the recursion stops only when n is 1, then the number of single-digit multiplications is 3k, which is nc where c = log23.
Since one can extend any inputs with zero digits until their length is a power of two, it follows that the number of elementary multiplications, for any n, is at most .
Since the additions, subtractions, and digit shifts (multiplications by powers of B) in Karatsuba's basic step take time proportional to n, their cost becomes negligible as n increases. More precisely, if t(n) denotes the total number of elementary operations that the algorithm performs when multiplying two n-digit numbers, then
It follows that, for sufficiently large n, Karatsuba's algorithm will perform fewer shifts and single-digit additions than longhand multiplication, even though its basic step uses more additions and shifts than the straightforward formula. For small values of n, however, the extra shift and add operations may make it run slower than the longhand method. The point of positive return depends on the computer platform and context. As a rule of thumb, Karatsuba's method is usually faster when the multiplicands are longer than 320–640 bits.
procedure karatsuba(num1, num2) if (num1 < 10) or (num2 < 10) return num1*num2 /* calculates the size of the numbers */ m = max(size_base10(num1), size_base10(num2)) m2 = floor(m/2) /* split the digit sequences in the middle */ high1, low1 = split_at(num1, m2) high2, low2 = split_at(num2, m2) /* 3 calls made to numbers approximately half the size */ z0 = karatsuba(low1, low2) z1 = karatsuba((low1 + high1), (low2 + high2)) z2 = karatsuba(high1, high2) return (z2 * 10 ^ (m2 * 2)) + ((z1 - z2 - z0) * 10 ^ m2) + z0
In practice, the choice of the optimal base case is machine specific 
- A. Karatsuba and Yu. Ofman (1962). "Multiplication of Many-Digital Numbers by Automatic Computers". Proceedings of the USSR Academy of Sciences. 145: 293–294. Translation in the academic journal Physics-Doklady, 7 (1963), pp. 595–596
- A. A. Karatsuba (1995). "The Complexity of Computations" (PDF). Proceedings of the Steklov Institute of Mathematics. 211: 169–183. Translation from Trudy Mat. Inst. Steklova, 211, 186–202 (1995)
- Knuth D.E. (1969) The Art of Computer Programming. v.2. Addison-Wesley Publ.Co., 724 pp.
- Charles Babbage, Chapter VIII – Of the Analytical Engine, Larger Numbers Treated, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher, Longman Green, London, 1864; page 125.
- Haining Fan, Ming Gu, Jiaguang Sun, Kwok-Yan Lam,"Obtaining More Karatsuba-Like Formulae over the Binary Field", IET Information security Vol. 6 No. 1 pp. 14-19, 2012.
- Weiss, Mark A. (2005). Data Structures and Algorithm Analysis in C++. Addison-Wesley. p. 480. ISBN 0321375319.
- Karatsuba's Algorithm for Polynomial Multiplication
- Weisstein, Eric W. "Karatsuba Multiplication". MathWorld.
- Bernstein, D. J., "Multidigit multiplication for mathematicians". Covers Karatsuba and many other multiplication algorithms.