By Jawaaz Ahmad
Dial a number. Any number from one to 100. Got one? OK, so how did you choose it?
People have problems creating and detecting randomness. The perception of designs proved to be a great mechanism of survival – big, mottled cats eat my children; this berry does not make me sick – so we evolved to be good at it(perhaps all too well). We constantly misinterpret data as a result of a desire for order. We believe that when a coin appears in five simple moments, we are “obliged” to the tails, or we believe that the stock market is predictable. It may come as no surprise that people are not good random numbers generators. And, for that reason we had to do a few. If you use Google’s “Random Number Generators”, on the first page you will find several that are able to mimic a random process. After defining a range, they will return the number. Do it 100 or 1000 or 10,000 times, and you will not find any perceptible pattern for the results. However, despite the name the results are not accidental.
Computers are logical hyperbolic machines that can only execute specific commands. Some of the random generators found on Google track what is called the “average squares”: start with an initial number, which can be any number. Square this number. You will have about twice as many digits. Take a few numbers in the middle of this number and mark it square. Repeating this process resembles the shuffling of the deck of cards. Still, if you know three basic information – the initial number, the number of digits taken from the center of each square, and the number of times the process is repeated – you can calculate this supposed “random” number every time, without disappointing.
Mathematicians have a word about this kind of randomness. Cleverly , they call this “pseudo-randomness”: the process goes through random statistical tests, but the number itself is completely determined. Professor Colva Roney-Dougal of the University of St. Andrews says, “I will never prove that a sequence is random, I can only prove that it looks random and smells random.” All this leads us to this: given the limits of human knowledge, how can we find out if something is really accidental?
A single thing, known as the Atomist, has begotten a line of thinking that claims that in fact randomness does not exist. The most determined of them, Democrats were convinced that the whole state of the universe could be explained by cause and effect. In other words, it was only the past that dictated the present and the future.
When you learn about pseudo-randomness, it’s easy to see the world through Democritus. The cube throw is not random. Instead, the bones are regulated by specific mathematical laws, and if we know the exact contours of the desk and the force applied to the ankle, we can calculate which sides will rest upwards. The same applies to shuffling cards. If we knew the exact height of the cards that had been raised, the exact strength with which they were released, and the distance from each other, it is perfectly possible to calculate the order of cards again and again. This applies to any random game that is governed by Newtonian or classic physics. Everything seems to be completely deterministic.
The absence of true randomness would be a huge problem, as was the case with the Germans during World War II with their highly respected but ultimately destructive Enigma machine. With its 150 million different settings, many Allied cryptologists believed the code was inseparable. But it was only a matter of setting up the rotor and circuits – or simply, completely deterministically – the allies were able to break the code. Since Newtonian physics was resistant to true randomness, since then cryptologists have been looking for quantum physics or subatomic particle rules that are quite different from Newton’s physics. Radioactive materials spontaneously throw particles away in a probabilistic way, but the exact time at which each particle is discarded is inherently random. Therefore, given the small time window, the number of discarded radioactive particles can act as the seed of a random number generator.
Whenever you buy something with a credit card, you trust that your information is securely transmitted over a well-accessible network. The difference between random and pseudo-randomness is extremely important. Pseudo-random patterns, such as those created by the Enigma machine, are messages that beg for read. Random patterns are a mysterious ideal.
As in the case of randomness, the more we learned about the exact nature of the brain function, we began to wonder if free will was possible. If everything is the result of precise causal chains such as dice throwing or shuffling, some have wondered how we can really make the right choices. However, as we have learned more about quantum physics, the possibility of a real choice has been revitalized because of a break in the causal chain. In a sense, quantum physics has introduced a gigantic, unsolvable question mark, and question marks are good for free will theorists. Ironically, quantum physics simultaneously undermines this line of thinking, because randomness is bad for the idea that we actually make rational choices.
So choose a number, any number. Maybe it is by chance.
The author is currently pursuing his M Tech in VLSI Design and Embedded Systems from Visveswaraya Technological University. He can be reached at: [email protected]