Apps to Randomize Your World (Some Using Quantum Physics!)

Update 10/13/09: corrected for ice cream flavor and location, thus merging two related universes.

There is a story about Richard Feynman that while he was at Princeton MIT he had a hard time with dessert. Apparently they always served either chocolate or vanilla ice cream and Feynman would agonize over which he wanted that night. Then one day he decided that he was wasting his time making this decision and so he would solve this by only choosing vanilla chocolate and from that point on in life that is what he did. He no longer wasted time choosing, and, apparently, ate a lot of vanilla chocolate ice cream. Of course there is an equally valid and equally elegant solution to this problem which is in fact the exact opposite of Feynman's deterministic solution: choose randomly! Chocolate or vanilla? Choose randomly. Stop at the stop sign or not? Choose randomly (okay maybe not!) Of course there is the question of exactly how you choose randomly. For some, dice may suffice, but isn't there a better way than carrying around a bag of dice which makes you look like your heading out for a night of RPGing?

Well today I'm happy to report to you that there is a solution to this problem: use your iPhone! As many of you know, when I'm stuck on a plane I like to write iPhone apps (thus leading to my app for accesing the arXiv: arXiview.) So on a few of these flights recently I kludged together a new iPhone app: MakeRandom. This app gives you access to custom random lists, dice, random numbers, and random words. To get the randomness you just set up the list you want to randomly select from and shake! Exciting, no? But today I got an email about an even more exciting use of randomness in the iPhone: Universe Splitter©:

Scientists say that every quantum event plays out simultaneously in every possible way, with each possibility becoming real in a separate universe. You can now harness this powerful and mysterious effect right from your iPhone or iPod Touch!

How? Whenever you're faced with a choice -- for example, whether to accept a job offer or to turn it down -- just type both of these actions into Universe Splitter©, and press the button.

Universe Splitter© will immediately contact a laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, and connect to a Quantis brand quantum device, which releases single photons into a partially-silvered mirror. Each photon will simultaneously bounce off the mirror and pass through it -- but in separate universes.

Within seconds, Universe Splitter© will receive the experiment's result and tell you which of the two universes you're in, and therefore which action to take. Think of it -- two entire universes, complete with every last planet and galaxy, and in one, a version of you who took the new job, and in the other, a version of you who didn't!

Classic! Watch as this quantum physicist who wrote an app for randomness slaps himself on the forehead for not thinking of this. Check out Universe Splitter's website for a great quote by Garrett Lisi.

Universe Splitter© is available from the iTunes store for $1.99 here

MakeRandom is also available from the iTunes store for $0.99here.

Below the fold: screenshots and a philosophical discussion of the difference between the applications.

First up lets look at some of the screen shots of the apps, a.k.a. apporn. UnivereSplitter© has an awesome looking steampunk interface:


I particularly like the idea of using the application to eat and chose your cake. Forks in roads will never be the same.

Next up is MakeRandom whose highlight from a apporn point of view is the cool spinning wheels:


Okay now on to the philosophy! So Universe Splitter© connects to a device which generates random numbers from a "quantum" experiment. MakeRandom on the other hand, chooses a random seed based upon the time and then uses a pseudo-random number generator. I will now claim, because it is fun, that there is no difference from the many-worlds point of view between these applications...for one use of the iPhone app!

What are you talking about Quantum Pontiff, of course there is a huge difference between a device which uses a beam splitter and one using a pseudo-random number generator. But let's think a little bit more about that pseduo-random number generator. It gets its seed, essentially, from the time of day. Given the seed we can determine its entire sequence of future numbers. So no one will argue that given the seed MakeRandom produces random numbers. But I will argue that the seed step is indeed random. But Pontiff, you say, of course the time of day is something which I can, by observing you, figure out and then it won't be random. But dear reader, last time I checked, time is a physical property of our universe, clocks are themselves physical objects which measure this property (indeed you may know that "time" is not a good observable in quantum theory, but my argument is not based on "time" being an observable, but on a clock as measuring some physical property of the clock.) And because time is physical, we must have arrived at that random seed by some measurement of a physical property of the universe, and because the world is quantum, we must branch into universes depending on what that actual outcome was.

Yes, yes, I hear you saying: but Pontiff the clock is a fully classical device. But I'm a many-worlder. Classical is not in my vocabulary (and if it is, mostly I say it when talking about decoherence and confusing the measurement problem with the emergence of classicality problem.) I will not allow a universe in which there is anything more than quantum physics at work, and therefore every measurement must split the universe and MakeRandom on setting its seed is, then, no different from the Universe Splitter© (besides the later being so much cooler than the former, of course.)

Please ignore the fact that my argument can be applied universally to every process ever run on every iPhone and every computer, to every biological system moving around its environment, to Kayne's interruption, and to the grades my students received in their class. Being a many-worlder is a costly endeavor, what with all those universes you've orphaned and left decoherent, never to rejoin your own personal universe. The iPhone apps described above, however, are emmenantly affordable.

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Interesting. I am looking forward to suing the makers of Universe Splitter once I have definitively proved that the many-worlds interpretation is false.

Ah, but there can be but one world in which you definitively prove that the many-worlds interpretation is false; but there may be an infinite number of worlds in which you fail to do so.

Therefore it is vanishingly unlikely that you will prove that the many-worlds interpretation is false.

@Steinn: ...and as no assumption was made about the action, I believe you have just shown that it is vanishing unlikely that anything ever occurs in the many-worlds theory :) (Which is quite the opposite of the most widely used critique!)

But if the pseudo-random number generator works as you say, it only causes one branching - after that the sequence is deterministic. The US apparently causes a split every time you randomize! In worlds/$ surely that's a better deal!

Worlds/$ is an interesting metric. For example MakeRandom has a dictionary of English words, so it has a huge World/$ for this problem. However, Uses/$ is definitely different. Of course if I changed the code such that it set the seed after every randomization... :)

The MWI, however interpreted, doesn't IMHO take the following challenge into account: whatever you say the "separation" of possible outcomes consists of, it is usually taken to happen at the moment a "measurement" is made. So we have one world/region/part-of-representation(like for density matrix)-being-confused-with-a-true-spatial-region carrying the one possible result (click in counter A) and the other region carrying the other result (click in counter B), etc. But then the MWI enthusiasts insist they don't think "measurement" is a special event (well, the whole point is to avoid "collapse" as a special event) and often say, the Schrodinger equation somehow keeps on going.

Well ... that looks awfully ironic and suspect. I've tried arguing against that per se (as in my namelink), but consider another tack: if I have e.g. a Mach-Zehnder interferometer with an initial beamsplitter BS1 and the recombiner BS2, the usual notion is to claim that after the waves (whatever that really is meanwhile) recombine to make intensity patterns showing interference, the click after BS2 involves splitting of the alternatives.

Hmmm - but my challenge is: since the first, BS1 represents a "choice" in the classical sense - to send a photon one way or the other - why doesn't the first, BS1 cause a "split" into worlds or whatnot before the two tracks can meet back up again? If it did that, then there wouldn't be two beams "in the same world" to meet up and cause the interference pattern (or whatever makes the right statistics if we split up to see both outcomes anyway!)

See the trouble? If you try to defend against that by saying, BS1 isn't a real measuring type device and it's the counters that "really measure", then you're back to picking quantum aristocrats v. plebes. MWI was supposed to democratize the whole thing, and keep it all swirling around. It really can't. I say, either the first BS1 should split into worlds not just beams, or that nothing should. We can't answer the measurement problem through MWI.

BTW right now, a post in my blog comes in second for Google search, using "quantum measurement paradox." It's been in the top ten for months.

I am not familiar with the iPhoneOS/API, but is it possible to get very low level access to the r/f antenna/receiver(s) to take a sample of background noise in the receivable frequencies? Wouldn't that supply a pseudo random seed even 'more random' than just time of day? Since some of that noise would be from the Cosmic Background Radiation (right?), isn't that essentially as random as one can get in this universe? IIRC, that is one of the methods used to generate one-time-pads for super secure applications.

I also wonder if there is a way to use the GPS to achieve a result similar to the device that UniverseSplitter is connected to.

There are four separate radio receivers in the iPhone -- seems a shame to waste them!

By automandc (not verified) on 13 Oct 2009 #permalink

That's funny. Feynman told me this story, but I remember him saying that he decided he would always have the chocolate ice cream. Are you and I on different branches of the wave function?

Having an iPhone is great, but I dropped mine yesterday and the glass shattered. At the time I thought it was because I was taking a picture of a deer while holding the phone in one hand and my dog's leash in the other. But after this post I have a more cosmic outlook, and I'm wondering about the alternative universes in which Feynman told me he decided on vanilla ice cream and that damned dog sat still like she was supposed to ...

Ha, it probably was memory is spread across many universes. Or at least that's the explanation I give for why it operates so poorly. Now I have to go track down where I read that ice cream story.

It would be like Feynman (and it would fit the theme of this post) if he told the story both ways. But in "Surely You're Joking", in the chapter "An Offer You Must Refuse" (p. 235) where he is trying to decide between Caltech and Cornell:

"It's much easier to just plain decide. Never mind --- nothing is going to change your mind. I did that once when I was a student at MIT. I got sick and tired of having to decide what kind of dessert I was going to have at the restaurant, so I decided it would always be chocolate ice cream, and never worried about it again --- I had the solution to that problem. Anyway, I decided it would always be Caltech."

Ah see I got it all wrong. It was MIT not Princeton and Chocolate and not Vanilla.

Interestingly when I tried to google this question this morning, the first hits that came up were this blog post. So while the universe may not have split, it does appear that one can attempt to split the least according to page rank.

Now up to the article to fix the errors.

The Quantis device does not use single photons. It uses a dim source. A true single photon source would be too expensive. One could made small enough to fit in the device, but that would make it even more expensive.

Note that "true random numbers" cannot be produced by any "mathematical operation" because of the logically entailed nature of math. There can be multiple solutions etc, but there is no "whim" in math. You can cheat by using the "unpredictable" (to anyone not knowing the derivation) digits of a root etc., but that gives the same answer over again. Note that statistical math etc. gives the chances themselves and consequences thereof in general, not particular results exhibiting those chances.

But physical phenomena can apparently generate true randomness, as described above. (Well, people disagree, but how could the process of creating e.g. deterministic muons have them created with the right "clockwork" for an eternal spread of correct chances to decay? REM there can be no elapsed-time effects: the set of muons left over after n half-lives must continue to decay in the same statistical manner as if just created. I don't buy that could be deterministic.)

If it's really random, that hints to me that our world is not a mathematical structure. Hence MUH/modal realism is false. As for MWI, it runs IMHO into this additional problem: how to represent the range of probabilities as number of splits. If you have 70:30 instead of 50:50 chance, "two worlds" doesn't properly represent the probabilities of outcomes. So, 7 of one and 3 of the other? But other fractions and irrational proportions are possible, so there's no specific n of worlds that makes it right. Yet "infinite" split-offs can't be properly commensurate for statistics (see Hilbert Hotel problem, etc.)

"...Universe Splitter© will immediately contact a laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, and connect to a Quantis brand quantum device..."

Just out of curiosity, does anyone know what lab this is and if the general public can also access this device? From the random number generator point of view, I wonder if this is better than

By CoffeeCupContrails (not verified) on 13 Oct 2009 #permalink

Just so your students are not misdirected, the "itâs" in your last paragraph should have no apostrophe.

By hairsplitter (not verified) on 13 Oct 2009 #permalink

Hello, I'm the creator/artist/programmer of the Universe Splitter app, chiming in with a few comments:

First of all, let me point out that my basic description of the Universe Splitter was intended for the general public. If those descriptions had been any more technical, not even my immediate family would have had the patience to read them. But this seems like the right crowd with which to get more specific, so here goes:

To answer CoffeeCup's question: Yes, the general public can access the same Quantis device; it's at the University of Geneva. However, after months of communicating with the company which makes the device, I learned that the device has some "anti-biasing" built into it to ensure exact 50/50 odds of each bit, which, although I have it on good authority (Garrett Lisi) that this probably wouldn't affect the universe-splitting, makes me a little uneasy... so at some cost, I have obtained from the manufacturer a special version of the device, which does no such bias correction. This device is online and in service at my home location (though not visible to the general public), and is currently used by Universe Splitter as a backup for the unit in Geneva, which occasionally goes offline for reasons I can't divine (I like to think of this as a different kind of quantum uncertainty). Very soon, though, I will make my non-bias-corrected device the primary one Universe Splitter accesses, and use the Geneva one as a backup... just so I'll be even more certain that my claims are valid.

"ADD" points out that this device does not use single photons, but rather a dim source. True, and this dim source is further filtered to become an even dimmer source, until (as I have been assured) the photons are separated enough to be pretty much travelling single-file... which is the dimmest source possible other than a single-photon gun. I felt it was appropriate to summarize this for the public as "single photons." For you folks, though, probably not!

I want version 2 of the Universe Splitter to have an option to generate a random number, or more specifically, a set of random lottery numbers.

I figure they would need to generate 24 bits to generate combinations for most lotteries in the world.

Just go down to your local convenience store, call up the app, generate yourself a combination, buy a ticket, and you're guaranteed a win, IMWIT. Unless, of course, your heart decides to quantum-mechanically leap out of its chest cavity as you try to pay for your ticket.

By Mark Schnitzius (not verified) on 13 Oct 2009 #permalink

Actually, the lottery thing would be a nifty feature for the next version of MakeRandom as well...

By Mark Schnitzius (not verified) on 13 Oct 2009 #permalink

That's funny. When I hung out with Feynman, took a Lithography class with him, and when we coauthored that poem later set to music, he told me that the choice was between 3 flavors: Vanilla, Chocolate, and Strawberry. These three were... hang on, that's a Gell-Mann story.

Hmm, from the Quantis website:

Quantis generates random numbers at a very high bit rate
Contrary to existing products, Quantis produces random numbers at a very high bite rate up to 16Mbps. This is the highest truly-random bit rate available to date.

It doesn't say whether the bites are chocolate, vanilla, or strawberry. But at 16Mbps, it may not matter much.