Random numbers are the hidden building blocks of many aspects of modern life. They are used to protect your bank details whenever you purchase online, select winners for lottery prizes, and if you are currently listening to music on shuffle, they are controlling which songs you hear next.
The fundamental principle of random numbers is remarkably simple; when a series of numbers are generated, knowledge of one or more of the previous numbers should not allow a user to correctly predict the next number in the sequence.
Take the following example:
Which of the following sequences do you think are random numbers, can you see a pattern in any of them?
(a): 1, 4, 9, 16, 25, 36
(b): 45, 55, 78, 91, 105, 120
(c): 52, 57, 67, 85, 100, 105
The answer is that only (c) is a set of random numbers, as (a) are square numbers, and (b) are triangular numbers starting at n = 10, which can be predicted using the simple expression: Xn = 0.5n(n+1). The sequence in (c) was generated at https://www.random.org/ who use atmospheric noise to ensure the sequence is truly random.
These numbers are used everywhere in the modern age, and although this may be the first you have heard of them, you have almost certainly used them in some way in your own house!
Below is an interactive infographic of a typical house, scroll your mouse over the different rooms and explore how random numbers are used in nearly every room!
Internet-connected security cameras are widely used in home security systems and for peace of mind, ensuring the youngest members of the family are sleeping soundly. Did you know that random numbers are necessary to produce the cryptographic keys required to connect to them securely? Poor random number generators in Internet of Things devices leaves them vulnerable to hackers.
The FBI have warned that internet-connected toys might be spying on you!
Random numbers can help to prevent fake pharmeceuticals; randomly-generated serial numbers are used to identify genuine medical products. If the random number generator used to make these serial numbers is compromised then it is easier to pass fake drugs off as real ones.
Did you know: Fake drugs are estimated to cost the industry $200bn/year, and more importantly millions of lives.
The security of the network in a home is limited by the weakest devices that connect to it. Smart light bulbs, temperature sensors and fridges etc. often have very poor security. If their default passwords aren’t chosen randomly then attackers can gain access to them and, in turn, the rest of your network.
A casino was recently breached when hackers gained access to their network through a smart temperature sensor in a fish tank!
Random numbers also underpin the security of online banking.
Random numbers underpin many forms gambling and gaming. A woman who won the lottery four times is suspected of working out the sequence of a poor random number generator.
Random numbers are needed to keep communications secure, and when posting content online. Over 8 million videos are posted on YouTube daily; each has a randomly-generated unique ID, allowing it to be accessed privately if desired.
Have you ever noticed the same tracks appearing again and again when listening to music on shuffle?
We often see patterns where they don’t exist and sometimes we prefer some things to be less random!
Random numbers play a significant role in many video games. The main role of random numbers in gaming is to enable interesting variations that either create moment-to-moment unpredictability or change the experience after each play-through to create interesting stories.
Games often don’t implement random numbers very well though, which allows canny players to game the system – for example cheating in online poker
In modern cars nearly all electronic components, from the engine’s controller, to the brakes, steering and entertainment system, are connected and controlled by the same network. This network then connects to remote servers and sometimes surrounding vehicles. Random numbers underpin the security of these systems.
Did you know?
Security researchers showed they could take control of a moving Jeep through a flaw in the security of its entertainment system?