What if there are no such thing as random events?

You might believe researchers are at odds with randomness (indeterminism) as they are looking for answers to science’s greatest challenges. But indeed for some methods used in the very precise disciplines of computer science and mathematics, the absence of randomness would create problems. As a specialist for the application of randomness, Avi Wigderson, the Israeli computer scientist and mathematician who teaches and conducts research at the renowned Princeton University in the United States, will give a talk on Tuesday, September 26 before 200 young researchers on the topic of “Randomness” during 1st Heidelberg Laureate Forum.

In addition to a number of scientific prizes he has won, Avi Wigderson was awarded one of the highest distinction in his field, the Nevanlinna Prize, in 1994 for his research in mathematical models for computer science. His current research focuses on complexity theory, which analyzes the cost of running certain algorithms on a computer. Wigderson conducts research on so-called randomized algorithms, which use randomness to solve a problem. The reason is that there are many problems for which computing the exact solution is very expensive. However, if one introduces a bit of randomness, one can find very good approximate solutions at low cost.  A typical example of this type of problem is cryptography, the field of encoding: Whoever has ever purchased a book, a cd or anything other item online in an internet browser has also benefited from cryptographic technology, that is, he or she has made slight use of the concept of randomness. The idea of using randomness to solve security issues, such online purchases, is one of the many scientific concepts in the field of computer sciences that makes life so much easier today.

This shows us that there can be no doubt about the usefulness of randomness. But how can we create random events? And is it possible to have a computer create perfectly random sequences of numbers? There are two common methods for these tasks. By using complex functions it is possible to create a sequence of numbers, that is quite similar to real random numbers. This yields so-called “pseudo-randomness”, because it appears to be random for all practical purposes. Scientists from around the world are seeking for suitable functions which fit into this method. The other way is to observe real randomness in nature – the classic example is radioactive decay – and to develop a computer simulation for it. But what happens when finding out, that radioactive decay is not random coincidence but predetermined?

Avi Wigderson conducts research on the non-existence of real randomness. He studies whether methods such as randomized algorithms or the usage of coincidence in cryptography can still be used if there is no such thing as a true randomness, as if everything really is predetermined. We can rest assured when it comes to security issues, is his result, as they are not affected by it.

Wigderson will give a talk on his theory of “Pseudorandomness” on Tuesday morning in the New University building in Heidelberg as part of 1st Heidelberg Laureate Forum. The week-long event, which began on Sunday, provides 200 young researchers from all over the world with the opportunity to exchange ideas with leading researchers like Wigderson.