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.