Robust algorithms for the secretary problem

Domagoj Bradac, Anupam Gupta, Sahil Singla, Goran Zuzic

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution

10 Scopus citations


In classical secretary problems, a sequence of n elements arrive in a uniformly random order, and we want to choose a single item, or a set of size K. The random order model allows us to escape from the strong lower bounds for the adversarial order setting, and excellent algorithms are known in this setting. However, one worrying aspect of these results is that the algorithms overfit to the model: they are not very robust. Indeed, if a few “outlier” arrivals are adversarially placed in the arrival sequence, the algorithms perform poorly. E.g., Dynkin’s popular 1/e-secretary algorithm is sensitive to even a single adversarial arrival: if the adversary gives one large bid at the beginning of the stream, the algorithm does not select any element at all. We investigate a robust version of the secretary problem. In the Byzantine Secretary model, we have two kinds of elements: green (good) and red (rogue). The values of all elements are chosen by the adversary. The green elements arrive at times uniformly randomly drawn from [0, 1]. The red elements, however, arrive at adversarially chosen times. Naturally, the algorithm does not see these colors: how well can it solve secretary problems? We show that selecting the highest value red set, or the single largest green element is not possible with even a small fraction of red items. However, on the positive side, we show that these are the only bad cases, by giving algorithms which get value comparable to the value of the optimal green set minus the largest green item. (This benchmark reminds us of regret minimization and digital auctions, where we subtract an additive term depending on the “scale” of the problem.) Specifically, we give an algorithm to pick K elements, which gets within (1 − ε) factor of the above benchmark, as long as K ≥ poly(ε−1 log n). We extend this to the knapsack secretary problem, for large knapsack size K. For the single-item case, an analogous benchmark is the value of the second-largest green item. For value-maximization, we give a poly log n-competitive algorithm, using a multi-layered bucketing scheme that adaptively refines our estimates of second-max over time. For probability-maximization, we show the existence of a good randomized algorithm, using the minimax principle. We hope that this work will spur further research on robust algorithms for the secretary problem, and for other problems in sequential decision-making, where the existing algorithms are not robust and often tend to overfit to the model.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publication11th Innovations in Theoretical Computer Science Conference, ITCS 2020
EditorsThomas Vidick
PublisherSchloss Dagstuhl- Leibniz-Zentrum fur Informatik GmbH, Dagstuhl Publishing
ISBN (Electronic)9783959771344
StatePublished - Jan 2020
Event11th Innovations in Theoretical Computer Science Conference, ITCS 2020 - Seattle, United States
Duration: Jan 12 2020Jan 14 2020

Publication series

NameLeibniz International Proceedings in Informatics, LIPIcs
ISSN (Print)1868-8969


Conference11th Innovations in Theoretical Computer Science Conference, ITCS 2020
Country/TerritoryUnited States

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Software


  • Matroid secretary
  • Robust optimization
  • Robust secretary
  • Secretary problem
  • Stochastic optimization


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