Playing the lottery, playing the numbers, getting lucky – whatever, you want to call it, people just love taking their chances on the prospect of becoming a millionaire in a minute.
But just how does the tech behind picking these numbers work? And just how random is it really? Let’s take a closer look.
Questioning the Randomness
Back in 2016, the Powerball lotto was worth over a billion dollars, and people were lining up to get their hands on a ticket. Millions of hopefuls chose to go with Quick Pick, the random number generator for choosing lottery numbers, while others relied on their favourite number selections based on significant dates, ages and other numbers.
However, experts say not to do this, because there is a high probability that you will get duplicate number sets which does not help your chances of winning. This is because since people often choose important dates, they will never be larger than the 31 days in a month, so the probability of many people choosing the same selection is significantly higher.
Quick Pick selections are randomly selected, but as humans determine the way this randomness is achieved there can be some repetition here too and it is possible to get the same number as somebody else.
The Science of Picking
The math behind the Powerball drawing assumes that randomness is true, that there is an equal shot that each number will be pulled from the machine as well as the assignment of Quick Pick numbers to ticket holders who do not choose their own figures.
In the Powerball, winning figures are chosen from two clear perspex machines, one holding 69 white balls and the other 26 red balls. Each are numbered, the latter 1-26 and the former 1-69, naturally enough.
The container is filled with air, and then when it is turned off balls are raised from the container and displayed. This is why you see the lotto balls crazily shaking all around inside these clear containers.
This process certainly seems random, but as Jeffrey Miecznikowski, Associate Prof of Biostatistics at the University of Buffalo writes, there exists the possibility the balls printed with more ink weigh more than ones with less ink. For instance, the ball labeled 33 would be fractionally heavier than the one labeled 2.
However, reviewing the number of times each ball has been drawn over time reveals that the potential tiny weight difference has no impact on which ones are picked. That random draw truly is random and impossible to predict with any certainty whatsoever.
But what about those Quick Picks?
Computers as Pickers
Lottery machines around the world generate numbers for lotto players, even if there may not be precisely equal chances for every number to be chosen.
Computers, after all are devices that are programmed by human beings, says Miecznikowski, and thanks to programming tech generate “pseudo random” numbers. The beginning number is called the “seed”, and other seeds can be created based on different factors that occur with no predictability or reason. It is from these seeds that calculations happen which produce numbers at rates with approximate randomness.
The data pulled from the over 290,000 tickets sold suggest that the Powerball machines are actually generating combos that have equal probability and are in fact truly random.
Both mechanisms involved in the lottery truly are random, but if you are one of those people who has their favourites then stick to those cherished digits to avoid the disappointment of seeing them appear the one time you don’t use them!