One of the quirks of the universe is that almost everything is predictable. The Earth goes around the Sun, the Sun orbits the centre of the Milky Way, and our tiny hunk of light orbits something halfway between here and the Andromeda galaxy. Anything else, and the system falls apart. So, as events are knowable right up to the largest scales, how can a concept like randomness exist?
This is a problem for computers. Made by another entirely predictable set of variables, namely, humans, computers are incapable of producing random numbers on their own. Why? Processors and other parts are guided by mathematical principles. Everything adds up. By definition, randomness is not mathematical, as there are no structures determining which number comes up next.
This means that computers have to look elsewhere to create the kind of randomness that’s required in video games, cryptography, and on gambling websites. In the latter case, experiences such as roulette and slots live and die based on how close to random they can get – and, in fact, regulators test developers’ games to ensure that they’re able to provide a fair experience to the player.
One example for this is the game Fishing Frenzy that makes use of randomness whenever the reels are spun. Behind the scenes, a piece of software called a Pseudo-Random Number Generator (PRNG) decides what position the reels stop in. Of course, we’re already stressed that there’s very little true randomness in the universe – so where do these numbers come from?
The good news is that a handful of natural and artificial processes can be considered close to random. The slightly stranger news is that there doesn’t seem to be much of a consensus on which one is the best at any given task. Household computers require something called an entropy source to create random data. Put another way, they need something connected to the device to operate in an unpredictable way.
This entropy can come from a spinning fan, mouse movements, or thermal fluctuations. On a more sophisticated scale, a computer could also get its random numbers from radioactive decay, as this process has no known schedule or order. Then, there’s something as mundane as the ball spinner in a bingo game. All these things can produce the entropy that might eventually decide what kind of loot players get from slain video game monsters.
In an article on the subject, the Slate magazine site points to an RNG device called ERNIE. This UK-based computer picks numbers for a bonds lottery – the Premium Bonds. Now on its fifth iteration, ERNIE has used several different entropy sources since its creation in 1956, including tubes filled with neon gases, its own heat production, and, most recently, the quantum properties of light. All that, for what is essentially a game.
Overall, randomness is one of the more unique processes in modern computing- and one that continues to invite study, almost seventy years after ERNIE first started crunching numbers.