Perspective - Randomness

If you look up the word random in the dictionary you'll find several different possible meanings of the word, but they all pretty much all mean the same thing. Something is said to be random if there are multiple results and there is no way to predict which result will occur. This essay will try to take a non-technical approach at explaining what randomness is, why randomness is important in the world, and what true randomness is.

Believe it or not, randomness has become an important part of our society. Here are a few examples of randomness in the real world.

  • Designers use random patterns on fabrics, carpets, and wall papers for added flair.
  • Computers use randomness in many programs to add verity.
  • Musicians use random modulations to some degree to give the sound more soul.
  • Artists will often paint in a semi-random fashion.
  • Physicists when calculating possible unknown variables will take into account random values.
  • Nature itself uses random errors in genetic encoding to evolve.
  • Casinos and lotteries are in constant use of randomness from dice, to cards, to slot machines.

Thousands of people spend money on various lotteries every day in hopes of beating the odds an winning millions of dollars. The chances of them winning are very unlikely, and yet the lure of winning the jackpot is strong enough for them to try anyway. The lottery is a perfect example of a game that is said to be random. Every lottery works a bit differently, but most of them use a a mechanical system of picking numbered balls from a device that mixes them. This uses a myriad of complex physics to give a result that we call random. But is it really random?

Although there are people who claim the lotteries are fixed, and some of them may very well be, let's assume that all lotteries are not being influenced by anything other than natural forces. We can then say that the lottery is random, because we cannot predict how the balls are going to react once they enter the mixing device. There are countless factors and variables to take into account such as the speed the balls enter the mixer, the spin of each ball, the chance of colliding with the mixer, air resistance, the weight of the balls, the speed at which the mixer fluctuates, ad infinitum. There is no way we could predict all those things. Or is it that we just can't predict it yet?

Our early ancestors were too busy dealing with issues of the last ice age to worry about calculus and physics, but these days even children are learning how to calculate how an object will ricochet off another given its mass, shape, speed, spin, and angle of collision. In the future we will undoubtedly know even more about making these complex calculations. If you were able to calculate all of these factors, and you did know all of the variables involved in the lottery, then you would be able to predict exactly which numbers would be picked, and it would no longer be random.

If you look at how we originally defined "random" we said that there is no way to predict the result. But in this case, there is a way to predict the result, we just don't yet know how to do it. Because of that, we can technically say that the lottery is not random.

Under this same view, there are plenty of other things that we can say are not random. Tie-dye shirts seem to be very random because no one can predict what the end result is going to look like, but if we fully understood how the dye enters the cloth and how the knots prevent the dye from absorbing, we would be able to predict it.

Now we have to ask ourselves, is there anything that is truly random? The concept of truly random would mean that no matter how much information we could ever know about how the result is made we would never be able to accurately predict the result.

Can you think of anything that meets this criteria? Most people like to think that the human brain is capable of being truly random, but even it has its faults. For example, let's say I ask a person on the street to give me any number at random. Even though they have an infinite amount of choices (positive infinity to negative infinity, as well as as infinite amount of decimals in between) they will most likely choose an integer value between 1 and 1,000,000. Why is this? Because even our brains usually limit us to things that we are familiar with, and thus make us predictable. Most random numbers picked by people are influenced by several factors like their favorite number, their preference of even or odd numbers, and various other factors. Also, the human brain and its nerves could eventually be measured because they work similarly to a electronic computer. These factors, just like the ones in a lottery, can be calculated and measured making them predictable, and thus they are not random.

People have tried using radiation measurements, background radio noise, even weather measurements to get random values, but all of these, although we can't necessarily calculate them now, we will most likely be able to calculate them in the future.

Computers seem to be the final frontier for calculations, because that's all they do. The irony is that computers may have been built for calculations, but they are actually the worst possible thing for getting random information due to the way computers can only do exactly what they're told, and thus, cannot be random. Although there are several algorithms for generation random numbers on a computer, not a single one of them is truly random.

One of the most important uses for random numbers belongs to the field of cryptography. Cryptography is used every day by people, businesses, and governments all over the world to keep their sensitive information safe. When you buy something off Amazon or eBay, your credit card information is encrypted. When the government sends mission instructions to its battleships the information is encrypted. The problem with this is that many of these encryption methods use random numbers that are generated by computers, which don't actually generate true random numbers. Because of this, there may come a time when it is possible to calculate any "random" number of a computer, and thus making it possible to crack any form of random computer encryption.

This probably won't happen any time soon, so there is no need to freak out, but the fact of the matter is, that it can happen, and thus creates a problem.

Supposedly there is an encryption method that is meant to use Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle by using the measurements of particles as random numbers. If this is successful we won't need to worry about random numbers anymore, because measuring a particle changes its state into one that is supposedly truly random. Only time will tell.