For his work examining flaws and fixes in auctions, Montgomery Blair High School senior Andrew Komo won the grand prize in the national Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology—a $100,000 scholarship.
Komo, who lives in Bethesda, won with a project called “Cryptographically Secure Proxy Bidding in Ascending Clock Auctions.”
More than 2,000 high school students entered more than 1,800 projects in areas such as biochemistry, biology, engineering, mathematics and physics, according to a Siemens press release. Scholarship prizes of $100,000, $50,000 and $25,000 were awarded for individual and group projects.
Komo, 17, said in an interview on Thursday that his research was anchored by his interest in economics and cryptography, the study of secret codes. A family photo shows him at work on a puzzle at age 3, he said, and he remains a fan of many types of puzzles.
In this case, the puzzle to figure out was the security and integrity of auctions, including how to prevent manipulation by sellers.
Komo, Blair High’s first grand-prize winner, said there are simple auctions, such as selling an item on eBay, and there are complex auctions, in which multiple items are sold at once.
To summarize his research during the interview, Komo broke the title of his project into phrases.
For eBay users, proxy bidding is familiar. They enter a maximum bid, but are only on the hook for the lowest amount that beats the current high bid. For example, if the high bid is $20 and increments are $5, someone who enters a maximum bid of $100 is only obligated to pay $25 to start.
In an ascending clock auction, interested bidders stay in as the price rises to different levels. The auction ends when bidders drop out and only one bidder remains for each item sold.
Komo worked on how sealed bids add security to the process. The seller knows how many bids were submitted, but doesn’t know what they are until the auction or a round is over.
Privacy prevents collusion and fraud, according to a summary of his project.
“The protocol is constructed in such a way that bidders can ensure an auction has run correctly once cryptographic information is revealed at the close of the auction, guaranteeing them an honest purchase price,” the summary says.
“Commitment scheme” refers to sticking with a price or value that no one else knows until it is revealed—as if it were temporarily in a safe, Komo said.
The idea becomes more complex depending on the auction system and the types of variables, he said.
“Andrew applied a great combination of mathematics and computer science with a practical application in mind,” William Gasarch, a professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, College Park, said in a Siemens press release about the winners. “People have long thought about this problem but no one has really come up with a clean, fast, user-friendly way of solving it.
“But Andrew did just that. He has applied techniques of cryptography to the problem of making sure all parties in an online auction are honest and he has implemented it in a way that could be applied soon.”
Komo’s mentor for his research was Lawrence Ausubel, a professor of economics at the College Park campus. Ausubel has been widely published on many topics, including auctions.
Ausubel said Friday that Komo’s work addressed “leakages” of information, in which an auctioneer colludes with a bidder.
The most obvious application of Komo’s work is for a high-stakes auction, such as regulators selling spectrums for cellphone service, in which bids might be in the billions of dollars.
Fraud is generally not a problem in “high-transparency” countries, but could be a factor elsewhere, he said.
“Andrew’s system could be used for large-scale auction sites that manage billions of dollars of transactions, often run by governments,” the Siemens award summary says. “Each year, for example, the FCC auctions off bands of the electromagnetic spectrum to communications and media companies, which need access to this resource for communications such as cell phone, radio, and telephone broadcasts. With Andrew’s system in place, such large-scale auctions could be carried out with more transparency, fairness, and security.”
Komo said he is interested in creating a “full implementation” of his work, creating a functioning system that people could use to see the principles applied. He also wants to pursue a patent.
Ausubel said he is associated with a company that operates spectrum auctions, which could be a channel for Komo to pursue.
Andrew Komo talks about his project and his interests. Credit: Siemens Competition
Komo was the individual winner in this year’s contest. Three students from Long Island won a $100,000 grand prize in the team category.
Montgomery County had a regional finalist in the team category: Cindy Huang of Thomas S. Wootton High School; Jessie Ma of Winston Churchill High School; and Robert Yang of Blair High. Their project examined precision in diagnosing lymphoma. They compiled their data on a website to encourage further lymphoma research.
Komo also won a $3,000 scholarship as one of the regional winners, which were announced in November, for a total of $103,000 in prize money.
Komo, who is on his school’s tennis team and captain of the economics club and the computer team, said he hasn’t decided which college he will attend.
The overall winners were announced last week at the end of a finals competition at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Komo’s mother, Stella Grosser, accompanied him to the finals competition. His father, Scott Komo, arrived in time for the awards announcement.
When his name was called as the grand-prize winner, “I was shocked,” Andrew Komo said.