Do you believe the Universe is really random?
Back at GIGSE in Montreal, this correspondent got briefed on a new service for the online gambling industry - namely a service in the rather esoteric field of random number generation. After several weeks of phone tag, we finally managed to get in touch with Jeff Manber, CEO and co-founder of Yuzoz. Yuzoz uses cosmic phenomena such as solar flares or cosmic storms to generate truly random numbers.
Manber had previously been a pioneer in the space tourism industry, as CEO of Mir-Corp, which leased the aging Soviet station Mir for two years as part of an attempt to create a commercial space travel industry. He also signed businessman Dennis Tito as the first space tourist to pay his own way - NASA invitees obviously don't count. NASA eventually strong-armed the company out of business, but, as Manber told us, the experience with Mir-Corp opened his eyes to the power space exerts over the human imagination.
"I thought - there must be some way to market or brand this," Manber reminisced.
Random number generation is a thorny issue for the gambling industry as a whole, but more so for the online gambling industry. The element of randomness is essential to casino games - it is in fact part of what defines them as such, along with a stake and a prize. Everyone has seen a Hollywood film in which a roulette wheel, for example, has been fixed to ensure that the ball will drop in a particular numbered slot, but by and large physical phenomena, chaos theory aside, are sufficiently random to satisfy your average gambler.
Computer software changes this relationship between the gambler and the random number generator. Computers, and the code that run them, are inherently deterministic, and true random number generation is impossible. Although increasingly sophisticated algorithims, known as pseudorandom number generators, can approximate randomness, the potential remains for a sophisticated user - or worse, the house - to hijack the process.
From the gambler's perspective, the code is invisible. A ball dropping into a numbered slot is one thing - a computer providing an image of a ball dropping into a slot, generated by the house's own software, is an altogether different experience. By way of example, this correspondent at GIGSE participated in a betting contest for an iPod at a booth that will remain unnamed in which the player with the most virtual chips at the end of the day won.
Toward the end of the day I made it to the booth. After several lucky virtual spins on the Wheel of Fortune -style interface, I was only one spin away from the high score. Strategically, it made a lot of sense to be one of the last players, because I would know when to pull the rip cord. I went all in on black - one spin for an iPod, supposedly a 50-50 chance. The virtual wheel slowed to a crawl, the little arrow teasingly caressed the black marker - and then the screen flickered, as the arrow clicked over onto the red marker.
Did I feel cheated? Of course I did.
Yuzoz - the name itself was generated randomly by pattern of solar rays, creating a word that existed in no language - solves this problem by generating numbers from cosmic events, which can then be independently verified. Quantum number generators have been developed in the past based on atomic decay, relativistic clock drift, and assorted other natural phenomena. The original Atari console used the noise from an electronic circuit to generate truly random numbers.
"Phase one," Manber told us over the phone, "is to prove the concept. Phase two will be things like gaming."
Random numbers have applications in other areas, such as cryptography, but the beauty of Yuzoz is that the phenomena are there for all to see. No need to trust your old Atari console anymore to pick your lucky lottery numbers. From the gaming industry perspective, the issue is one of trust - although there are groups out there like eCOGRA that provide independent verification that the numbers involved are truly random, Yuzoz provides a little fun to boot. The service also provides ways for users to create music or art with a direct link to the cosmos.
The company just snagged a new COO in John Mangano, from AOL, and has shot to the top of the Google charts in a sample search for "live random number generator," which is impressive after only a few weeks in business, even for a highly specialized business.
Not that there's anything random about Google, of course.®
Burke Hansen, attorney at large, heads a San Francisco law office