Pick a number, any number, between, say, 1 and 100. Did you pick it at random? What if I tell you that many of you picket 37, and some others, 73? This was a small trick to demonstrate how bad humans are at picking random numbers – our brain has too many influences around it to be able to pick something that’s truly random. This is why we need a device called a Random Number Generator or RNG to do it for us.
Why would we need random numbers, you may ask? Well, it may come as a surprise that random numbers are used in more areas than you might think.
What is a random number generator?
As we said above, a random number generator – RNG – is a device or a computer program that can pick a random number without any inherent bias. This means that it can serve us with a sequence of numbers that cannot be predicted in any way.
Random number generators come in many flavours, from something as simple as a coin toss (with an ideal coin, of course) to dedicated microchips that generate random numbers based on, say, the nuclear decay of atoms or atmospheric noise detected by a radio received connected to a computer.
Where are random number generators used?
The first thing to come to mind is, of course, gambling. The shuffling machine at a blackjack table, the ball on the roulette wheel or the slot machine are all random number generators in their own right. But so is the ball from which the Powerball numbers are extracted each week.
Online casinos use random number generating software to run their games and keep them as random (as in fair) as possible so that neither the operator nor the player can predict which round will win and which will not.
Beyond the obvious
Random numbers play a very important role in our everyday life without us even knowing it: cryptography. Encryption keys are commonly used in areas where data is transmitted – as in pretty much every aspect of our lives, from emails and instant messages to money transfers and everything in between. An encryption algorithm uses a random sequence of numbers as a key – the “more random” it is, the harder it is to predict and break.
A well-chosen encryption key can be incredibly difficult to break using “brute force” attacks – where an attacker uses every single variant of an encryption key – because of the number of variants. The more random the number used as an encryption key is, the harder it is to guess.
But random numbers are used in many other areas as well, ranging from the choosing of jurors in the US legal system to statistical analysis, computer simulations, even the generation of the “quote of the day” at certain websites.