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Random access to the stars

After months of preparation, a venture that uses outer space to generate random numbers is finally in the midst of a soft launch. You might think that there's nothing new under the sun when it comes to picking lucky numbers. But Yuzoz, a British-based company, is using data from the sun and other celestial objects to add some out-of-this-world twists to the seemingly simple exercise.

The venture is the brainchild of Jeff Manber, who came to prominence eight years ago when he and some deep-pocketed business partners set up MirCorp to keep Russia's Mir space station in orbit as a commercial platform. They came close to setting up a TV deal, but the effort - and Mir itself - eventually went down in flames. A couple of years later, a project to put pop singer Lance Bass in space fizzled out as well.

"I got a little burnt by the space industry," Manber told me today, "and I feel that my skill is in connecting to people who dig space."

So after taking a couple of years off,  Manber cast about for an opportunity that would play off people's fascination with outer-space stuff - and hit upon the idea of harnessing the random patterns of space readings for random stuff on Earth.

Six months ago, Manber explained his business plan to me - but the idea still seems so random that it's worth a refresher. To be sure, any computer program can generate pseudo-random numbers, but researchers have found that the best foundations for true randomness are built on natural phenomena, such as atmospheric noise or radioactive decay.

Yuzoz draws upon computerized data sets from a variety of space probes that have been observing terrestrial weather, auroral displays, solar flares, the solar wind and even Venusian cloud movements. Manber is hoping that the outer-space angle will add a coolness factor to Yuzoz's random number generator - which, for what it's worth, has been certified by Technical Systems Testing.

"We're the first people to brand a random number generator," Manber said. "And the value that comes from that has to do with trust, transparency, honesty."

He envisions having Yuzoz-branded randomness incorporated into computer games (which relies quite a bit on random numbers), offered through cell phones for picking lottery numbers, plugged into computer-generated musical compositions and engineered into architectural lighting schemes.

"Yuzoz is in part an artistic project," Manber said. "You either get it or you don't. If you would enjoy walking into a cathedral and having the lighting patterns change based on space, you get it."

Manber said the Yuzoz brand could soon be incorporated into lucky-number jewelry. And in a throwback to another well-known type of augury, you could someday make choices based on real astronomical data emanating from sources in your astrological sign. Relationship advice from Virgo, for example. Or health tips from Cancer.

"There are a lot of revenue streams, all going back to the idea of making the connection to space useful and fun," Manber explained. "Yuzoz bridges that gap and really gives you the feeling that there's a connection."

The Yuzoz Web site may have just come out of beta testing, but Manber still hasn't put all the pieces of the business model together quite yet. Over the coming weeks, he and his Yuzoz colleagues plan to introduce customizable, randomizable "widgets" that can be placed on Web pages or desktops, and intend to provide more information about the precise sources of particular random numbers.

Right now Yuzoz is fiddling with a variety of space-based data feeds. But in the next month or so, Manber hopes to have the system organized so you can choose to have your lucky numbers generated by the northern lights, for example, by drawing upon data from the THEMIS space probes.

It so happens that some high numbers could be winging their way from space even as we speak, due to an uptick in solar activity. If you want to turn from random data to definitive observations, check out the SpaceWeather.com Web site for updated forecasts. You just might be able to spot the northern lights yourself, if you're in the right place at the right time. 

Is success in the stars for Yuzoz, or does the venture sound totally random? Feel free to register your prediction in the comments section below.