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 Random.org and random numbers 
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Joined: Thu Mar 31, 2011 4:00 pm
Posts: 10071
Post Random.org and random numbers
Introduction to Randomness and Random Numbers

RANDOM.ORG is a true random number service that generates randomness via atmospheric noise. This page explains why it's hard (and interesting) to get a computer to generate proper random numbers.

Random numbers are useful for a variety of purposes, such as generating data encryption keys, simulating and modeling complex phenomena and for selecting random samples from larger data sets. They have also been used aesthetically, for example in literature and music, and are of course ever popular for games and gambling. When discussing single numbers, a random number is one that is drawn from a set of possible values, each of which is equally probable, i.e., a uniform distribution. When discussing a sequence of random numbers, each number drawn must be statistically independent of the others.

With the advent of computers, programmers recognized the need for a means of introducing randomness into a computer program. However, surprising as it may seem, it is difficult to get a computer to do something by chance. A computer follows its instructions blindly and is therefore completely predictable. (A computer that doesn't follow its instructions in this manner is broken.) There are two main approaches to generating random numbers using a computer: Pseudo-Random Number Generators (PRNGs) and True Random Number Generators (TRNGs). The approaches have quite different characteristics and each has its pros and cons.


Quantum Events or Chaotic Systems?

One characteristic that builders of TRNGs sometimes discuss is whether the physical phenomenon used is a quantum phenomenon or a phenomenon with chaotic behaviour. There is some disagreement about whether quantum phenomena are better or not, and oddly enough it all comes down to our beliefs about how the universe works. The key question is whether the universe is deterministic or not, i.e., whether everything that happens is essentially predetermined since the Big Bang. Determinism is a difficult subject that has been the subject of quite a lot of philosophical inquiry, and the problem is far from as clear cut as you might think. I will try and explain it here, but would also like to point out that Wikipedia has a concise account of the debate.

Quantum mechanics is a branch of theoretical physics that describes the universe at the atomic and subatomic levels. Random number generators based on quantum physics use the fact that subatomic particles appear to behave randomly in certain circumstances. There appears to be nothing we know of that causes these events, and they are therefore believed by many to be nondeterministic.

In comparison, chaotic systems are those in which tiny changes in the initial conditions can result in dramatic changes of the overall behaviour of the system. Weather systems are a good example of this, and you may have heard of the butterfly effect, a thought experiment in which a butterfly beating its wings in Brazil is able to affect the winds subtly but critically, just enough to cause a tornado in Texas.

Proponents of random number generators of the quantum variety argue that quantum physics is inherently nondeterministic, whereas systems governed by physics are essentially deterministic. I am personally undecided as to where I stand on the determinism-nondeterminism scale, but for the sake of argument, I will put on my determinist hat and use RANDOM.ORG as an example. You could argue that the atmospheric noise used as a source for the RANDOM.ORG numbers can be viewed as a chaotic but deterministic system. Hence, if you knew enough about the processes that cause atmospheric noise (e.g., thunderstorms) you could potentially predict the numbers generated by RANDOM.ORG.

However, to do this, you would probably need knowledge of the position and velocity of every single molecule in the planet's weather systems. This is of course infeasible, and the inaccuracy of weather forecasts is a good example of how difficult it is to give even a rough estimate of the behaviour of weather systems. For this reason, it is impractical to predict random numbers from RANDOM.ORG, even for a determinist. A similar case (on a different scale) could be made for random number generators based on lava lamps.

Now, you may think that since there's dispute about the suitability of chaotic phenomena for generating randomness, then why not just stick with quantum physics? That would seem to be the safe bet. However, quantum generators aren't safe from critique either. Hard determinists will dispute that subatomic particle behaviour is really random and instead claim that the way they behave is exactly as predetermined as everything else in the universe has been since the Big Bang. The reason we think these specific particles behave randomly is simply that no human measurement has been able to account for their behaviour. In this view, subatomic events do indeed have a prior cause, but we just don't understand it (yet), and the events therefore seem random to us. To a hard determinist, quantum physics is exactly as suited for random number generation as is atmospheric noise or lava lamps.

This is only one possible argument, and there are many others. When it comes down to it, I think the most meaningful definition of randomness is that which cannot be predicted by humans. Whether randomness originates from unpredictable weather systems, lava lamps or subatomic particle events is largely academic. While quantum random number generators can certainly generate true random numbers, it seems to me that they for all intents and purposes are equivalent to approaches based on complex dynamical systems.


Thu Oct 27, 2011 8:32 pm
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Joined: Mon Apr 04, 2011 7:53 am
Posts: 3547
Post Re: Random.org and random numbers
Hey, what's wrong with the good old fashioned way?

Image

That's how I make up all my passwords, hahaha.


Thu Oct 27, 2011 8:41 pm
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Joined: Thu Mar 31, 2011 4:00 pm
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Post Re: Random.org and random numbers
The Non automated standard.

random.org can generate passwords, random numbers and select winners for contests. An interesting site.


Thu Oct 27, 2011 8:52 pm
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Joined: Thu Mar 31, 2011 4:00 pm
Posts: 10071
Post Re: Random.org and random numbers
lets make a list:

1. BE
2. TT
3. Egg
4. ME
5. Pigeon
6. SG

And have it pick a random order using noise...

6
1
2
5
4
3


Thu Oct 27, 2011 8:56 pm
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Joined: Mon Apr 04, 2011 7:53 am
Posts: 3547
Post Re: Random.org and random numbers
Ok, I tried to let it generate a random password for me, and it gave me this:

WeBmqrDs

Like I would EVER manage to remember a password like that among all the other passwords I have to keep track of!

Time to open the little old notebook again.... and use the good old pen. Scribble, scribble, scribble.... Sometimes I have to use not so modern methods to survive in this very modern computer age, hahaha.


Thu Oct 27, 2011 9:19 pm
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Joined: Mon Apr 04, 2011 7:53 am
Posts: 3547
Post Re: Random.org and random numbers
Pigeon wrote:
lets make a list:

1. BE
2. TT
3. Egg
4. ME
5. Pigeon
6. SG

And have it pick a random order using noise...

6
1
2
5
4
3


Very happy with that new order.

:mrgreen:


Thu Oct 27, 2011 9:20 pm
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Joined: Mon Apr 04, 2011 7:53 am
Posts: 3547
Post Re: Random.org and random numbers
And now that I seem to have killed the Dolphin once again, I'll say good night.

Sigh.


Thu Oct 27, 2011 9:33 pm
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