True Randomness

Is True Randomness possible?

An often overlooked question is whether the random numbers that we use in our daily lives from computers actually are completely random. Sure, in some sense they are, we know that if we generate these numbers their outcome will be different each time. However, do we truly know that the distribution is exactly random? Or is there some pattern which can be observed? If they are not completely random, what consequences could this lead to?

Random numbers in computers are usually drawn using the system clock from the computer. The system clock is a low-level clock which keeps track of the time. Since the time is always changing, we can use this as a source of variation, which can be used to generate “random” numbers.  Just as an example, it could take the time and normalize it so that it would be within a certain range, hence a “random” variable is created. At least the number is different from time to time, and hence it is at least partly random. There are other ways to generate random numbers in computers, such as recording user input (mouse movement and keyboard pushes) and use these data to generate numbers. It is also possible to record “randomness” from outside sources, such as measuring the power of electromagnetic waves with an antenna.

However within science and engineering, we usually want a certain distribution, for example Gaussian distributions. The neat thing is, that it is possible to convert a certain distribution to another by mathematical formulas. This conversion does not usually yield a perfect desired distribution, however it can be enough for a lot of purposes. That systems are not completely random can indeed cause a lot of trouble. For example imagine a gambling company where the randomization process is off, so that the players either win or lose too much. This can also be a legal issue since the casinos usually follow strict regulations about the pay-back rates to the gamblers.

There are some more sophisticated ways to generate random numbers. One example is to utilize the randomness of the electromagnetic background radiation. Simply put, this electromagnetic waves comes from the creation and randomness of the universe, and they constantly echo out in space. It’s possible to capture these with an antenna on earth.

To conclude, we can never guarantee that a series of generated numbers are truly random (no recognizable pattern), however for all practical purposes, the random numbers we can generate are often good enough.