Friday, June 27, 2008

In Praise of Randomness

In this age of anxieties, when one is threatened daily with terrorist attacks, financial collapses, job stealing immigrants, political nuclear options, perhaps it seems odd to defend yet another source of anxiety: Randomness.

In fact, we despise Randomness so much that we develop an entire discipline to eliminate it: Control Theory. This discipline works well enough to make our industrial automation effort effective and efficient.

We also developed mental explanations for random phenomena: spirits, god, karma, Just-so stories, etc. Some of these memes are so successful that they’ve built entire religions around themselves.

So then why should I praise Randomness?
Consider what life might be like if there was no randomness at all.

  • There would be no more accidents
  • Climatic changes could be predicted precisely and dealt with
  • Political conflicts might not arise since one can predict the exact reactions of opponents

But also:

  • Homo sapiens might not have evolved yet
  • We would be stuck in a Trafalmadorian or clockwork style universe with its every click well known to all its inhabitants.
  • Strong encryption may be impossible.

Counterfactuals would be meaningless!

Why would Homo Sapiens not have evolved?
It turns out that without the randomness injected by sexual combination and to a lesser extent, mutation, a genetic population would take much longer to adapt to large environmental change. Frankly, they have a higher probability of becoming extinct. This is because the randomness creates a large number of new genetic combinations in each child generation where some of them are likely to be well adapted to the new environment.

In fact, one might say that evolution cannot work at all without randomness. A world without randomness would be a Christian fundamentalist’s type of world with only fixed types of animals and no possibilities for new species to arise save for divine intervention.

There are more mundane ways in which randomness help us.
Consider the Beancounter or Coin sorter one finds in the banks or supermarkets.
These sorters do not evaluate each coin one at and time and drop it into the right bin. Rather, they take advantage of the size differences between the coins and shake them rigorously over a series of masks so that each mask filters out the next largest size coin. This is a much simpler and efficient design than ones that deal with one coin at a time. Such mechanisms are also used commonly in many industrial applications.

In paper making, the random orientation of the fiber helps provide tear resistance.

The randomness used in encryption key generation help make the cipher hard to break. If there were too much order in the key generation process, then it would be easy to break.

With the advent of chaos theory, we now know that deterministic systems can easily elude our understanding and predictions. Even more fortunate for us, Einstein seems to be wrong and God “does” play dice with our universe; randomness appears to be an intrinsic property of our world.

I find real joy in this. A universe without randomness would be boring indeed.

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