What is true randomness?
True randomness

June 18, 2020

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The shuffle function on Spotify is an easy way to listen to music without having to pick some numbers. However, once in a while we all seem to recognize patterns in the numbers that we listen to. The shuffle function does not seem to be so random at all, so are these numbers truly randomly picked?

This recognition of a sequence is partially caused by the functioning of our brain. It is very easy for the brain to distinguish patterns in seemingly random things like shuffled music or dice roles. Especially when these “processes” are repeated for a longer period of time, the chance that “unlikely” events will happen, will become likely. If you would flip a coin 10.000 times, there would be a very big chance that at some point the coin landed heads up 10 times in a row. For us it would seem like this is not random, while in fact the opposite is true.  So, our idea of randomness is actually not very accurate compared to its true definition.

However, in the case of the music shuffle function, our perception does not necessarily need to be wrong. Shuffling functions are working on an algorithm. These algorithms aim to resemble true randomness as good as possible, but they remain algorithms. Even though they are often extremely complicated, if one would know all the starting conditions and/or the working of the algorithm, he or she could still predict the outcome with great certainty and therefore defeating its randomness.

This idea of knowing all starting conditions can even be extended to other concepts that we all think are truly random. For example, the outcome of a dice roll is seen as random, but in reality most dices are not perfectly shaped. Even the slightest difference in side length could imply a deviation of true randomness in the long run. Another example of this are coins. A Polish research in 2002 showed that a Belgian one euro coin more often than not lands heads-up. This was a result of the portrayed Belgian king on the heads’ side, making the side slightly more heavy. So, as a result of these imperfections we can question ourselves if true randomness even exists or if it is just a concept. 

Well, a hardware random number generator (HRNG) seems to be the closest we can get. HRNG generates numbers from a physical level, rather than by using an algorithm. Such devices are often based on microscopic phenomena that generate low-level, statistically random “noise” signals on quantum level. These stochastic processes are, in theory, completely unpredictable. These quantum sized things are seen as probabilities. They are defined by nothing and there is nothing to predict. It seems to be deep seeded randomness woven into the universe itself. Einstein refused this theory, as he could not believe that “god played dice with the universe”. However, with all the current knowledge we have this does seem to be the case. We conclude that for now, the best dice there exists, is the universe.

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