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Random number generation...no dice required

by Paul Jay, CBCNews.ca

Computer generated random numbers - or at least the ones created by commercially available PCs - have generally fallen short of 'true randomness,' since in order to create them the computer has to start with something, and that something is usually some form of complicated mathematical algorithm. For most people, this kind of "pseudo randomness" is probably enough for their needs, but for security encryption and scientific experiments, true randomness is ideal.

Now a new service available online for free has come up with a way to generate these numbers: by tying the number generation to the inherently random processes at the heart of quantum physics.

The Quantum Random Bit Generation Service draws its data from the detection of photon emissions in semiconductors. As the site describes:

In this process photons are detected at random, one by one independently of each other. Timing information of detected photons is used to generate random binary digits - bits.

It's a neat way of generating random numbers, but not the first one available on the internet. Previous random number generators have tied their results to the movement of liquids in a lava lamp or atmospheric noise. And while it may be useful for scientific purposes, the Quantum Random Bit Generation Service isn't quite ready for security encryption, the site warns.

This story has a couple of amusing side notes. One is that in order to register to use the service, the person signing in must answer a Calculus question as the Captcha - the test used to determine if the user is human or a computer. Readers attempting to register are greeted with questions about polynomials or trigonometry (featuring the dreaded cosine and sine), which, if you are like me, you've long since forgotten. Luckily, the site allows you to refresh until an easier question appears. And inevitably (and in a rather unrandom manner) about one in four questions is childlike in its simplicity. I registered after correctly answering -4 + (-1) * (-5) = 1. It's a bit embarrassing.

The other interesting note is the initial press release, which said quasi-random numbers were generated by using "various algorithms to pick the numbers from large pre-compiled databases of numbers obtained by methods such as rolling the dice."

Afterwards one of the site's administrators at the Ruder Boskovic Institute in Croatia was compelled to provide a correction:

I was thrilled to see that the QRBGS project has been SlashDotted. And Dugg (or however you spell it :D). However, I was very sad to find out that the original text that these sites refer to has been written by the PR department, mangling the facts in the process, and forgetting to run the final version by me. I would like to apologise to all the readers who are now busily generating their pseudo-random number databases by rolling dice.

Thanks to Slashdot for the link.

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Comments

Carolyn

Should I ever desire random in its true form, I shall look to the links provided. Thanks!

Posted July 19, 2007 01:07 PM

Monkey

Winnipeg

I don't want to but I'll post anyways.

WHO CARES

If you want true randomness make up a crazy bill, bring it up to the US Senate and get them to vote on it, even if it's the same bill that you bring them over and over there will always be a different total of votes!

Posted July 19, 2007 02:01 PM

Carolyn

Heeeey... didn't we see this bill last month?
Who cares? Maybe this one is different!
Maybe... but I think it looks really similar.
I'm voting Against.
Ack, wait! Me too I guess!

Month Later:

...this is definitely the same bill.
For!
For? Why?
Because I can't vote Against again!
Well then I will!


AND SO ON FOREVER.

Posted July 19, 2007 03:14 PM

Monkey

Winnipeg

LOL!

Posted July 19, 2007 05:24 PM

Charles

Ontario

...much laughter here. Much.

Posted July 20, 2007 09:06 AM

Garet

Winnipeg

The human mind cannot comprehend true randomness anyways. The only way we can tell that a computer program isn't random is based on the code.

Posted July 20, 2007 09:35 AM

A. Essex

True randomness is important for cryptographic purposes, although not from an untrusted source (such as this).

Posted July 21, 2007 04:08 AM

Andrew

Toronto

A human can certainly detect a computer generated random number series. Just wait long enough and the numbers will begin to repeat in exactly the same order - guaranteed.

Posted July 22, 2007 09:42 PM

Bris

Toronto

" I registered after correctly answering -4 + (-1) * (-5) = 1. It's a bit embarrassing."

Would not the correct answer to the above equation be 25?

1 would be the answer to: -4 + ((-1)*(-5))

Posted July 23, 2007 08:06 AM

Garet

Winnipeg

But, that can happen with true randomness too, Andrew.

Posted July 23, 2007 10:16 AM

DiscLexic

Hamilton

Bris,

BEDMAS my friend, BEDMAS.

it doesn't matter if there are brackets there or not. multiply first, then subtract...

Posted July 24, 2007 10:01 AM

Garet

Winnipeg

You forgot order of operations, Bris. The equation you wrote at the bottom and the one in the article are the same.

Posted July 24, 2007 10:25 AM

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