Are Random Number Generators truly random?

Having carried out some research on random number generators or RNG’s for short I concluded that there are degrees of randomness. The whole thing is really complicated, just like infinity itself.

Why do we need it? For betting or gambling of course, it has no other use than prediction. Since ancient times rolling the dice, flipping a coin or using playing cards all have forms of random number generation. In this article we only consider random RNG’s in machines.

Random number generation can be really simple as in the flip of a coin. However as the number of outcomes increases it can become a hugely complex task. For example flipping a coin only has two outcomes and in theory that outcome could be repeated an infinite number of times. The reality of course is that the odds of 2:1 are rather more balanced.

Bingo

Now consider Bingo which typically required the use of RNG’s. For the game this was achieved by using numbered ping-pong balls circulated in an air stream. A vortex allowed the balls to fall one at a time into catchment chamber. From there, they could be extracted and the number called. There might be 100 numbered balls in circulation and each bingo card might typically have 25 numbers. Bingo has winner at the end of every draw. The simplest way to look at the odds of winning is X:1 where X is the number of players. Of course it is more complicated than that because the cards are different and the outcome is progressive until each game is won.

Premium Bonds were the earliest form of Lottery in the UK. Every month your bond number is put into a national draw and the outcome is determined by Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment, otherwise nicknamed as “ERNIE”. This form of investment was introduced by the Government in 1956 but of course if your number is never indicated you never win. Over time as the number of Bonds increased the odds of winning decreased.

Ernie was probably the first attempt at designing and building an electronic RNG. It was designed by one of the Bletchley Park code-breakers and initially the top prize was £1,000. Although the number of prizes and value has increased over the years the odds of winning have decreased dramatically. This is because of the number of bonds which have been sold, although the number of prizes has been increased.

The RNG’s are certified before every monthly draw by Government’s Actuary Department, whatever that means.

National Lottery

The National Lottery in the UK was in November 1994 and despite electronic advances electro-mechanical RNG was used. Today, there are no less than 12 of them. The machine is selected for each draw by a celebrity or a member of the public.

The machines use gravity pick up and numbered solid rubber balls. The balls are dropped into a chamber where two paddles, spinning in opposite directions, mix up the balls. The operator actuates a sliding door at the bottom of the mixing chamber. Six balls pass through a clear tube into a clear display area one at a time where the numbers can be read.

Assuming proper regulation of the physicality of the machine and the balls used this type of random number generator is about as good as it can get. Of course the National Lottery is well-regulated for fair play. This RNG is always operated in the public eye so transparency is very clear.

Most people know that the chances of winning the National Lottery are very small. So many tickets are sold for each draw and most of the prize fund is awarded to one winner. The prize fund is significantly reduced to allow donations to good causes and the odds of winning the jackpot are around 45 million to one. However, there is a ten percent chance that you might win the cost of your ticket back.

Casinos

In a casino you will find two types of random number generators, the slot machine and the roulette wheel.

The roulette wheel is considered to be one of the best RNG’s of all time. The roulette wheel is limited to less than 38 numbers depending on which type of roulette you are playing. It is a completely mechanical device. It is widely accepted that under normal circumstances fair play is achieved when using a regulatory roulette wheel. Roulette wheels in casinos are required to be frequently checked and licensed. The odds are plain to see for example 38 to 1 or less. There are of course many other betting options when playing roulette, all with fixed odds.

Slot machines were another example of mechanical RNG’s. Then they became electro mechanical and these days, they are almost entirely electronic.

The first slot machines appeared in America during the 1770’s and had no controls. After the reels were set spinning they stopped where they stopped. Later slot machines had brakes which were applied randomly after the side lever was returned to the home position. By the turn of the last century slot machines had become hugely popular but is was generally accepted that they could be abused. Being mechanical devices springs and weights could be added to influence the landing position of the reels.

By the 1960’s electro mechanical machines were being phased in. This bought about the possibility of adding timers to influence the landing position of the reels.

Online Casinos

By the mid 1990’s the first online casinos were created with the growth of the internet. From this time, RNG’s needed to be electronic and use computer based technology. Cabinet based machines in casinos were using the same technology, they were developed by the same casino software designers.

Online casinos use electronic RNG’s to determine the outcome of an event. For example where the ball lands on a roulette wheel or which symbols land in the window on a slot machine.

If you research the technology used for Random Number Generators you will probably soon get lost in technicalities. The number generators used in online casinos are regulated by the licensing authority of the casino. That will depend on the jurisdiction of the casino and conditions might vary.

Online casinos will publish pay out rates percentage terms. Most will claim to pay out between 90-97% but it is important to remember, that is over the life of the machine. This means that you could lose 3-10% of your money when you play at an online casino on a particular machine.

Most of you will have experienced winning or losing phases at an online casino. How many of you trust random number generators?. It you do you will be putting your trust in a licensing authority. In conclusion, it appears that’s all you can do.