Courtesy of Casey King
“I’ve always been a bit shy about this sort of thing,” William Casey King GRD ’10 said when first approached about a profile. “Honestly, I am much more interested in making my students look cool, rather than myself.”
For someone with as storied a career as his, King is exceedingly modest. As the director of the Capstone Program at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs since 2014, King works at the nexus of policy and technology. He also served as the founding executive director of the Yale Center for Analytical Sciences from 2010-14.
Having begun his academic career in the humanities, King’s path towards data science was not immediately clear. He graduated from Yale in 2010 with a doctoral degree in history as the last doctoral student of the late David Brion Davis, a former Sterling Professor of History. The transition to data science, he said, was initially the most challenging part of his career.
“It was at a time before there were a lot of YouTube tutorials or any courses on coding,” King said. “I had to teach myself to code, to apply statistical methods, but ultimately, I am convinced that people trained in the humanities make the best data scientists because the humanities train you how to think, how to reason with incomplete information, how to draw on domain knowledge to imagine the ‘why.’”
With this determination, King launched himself into the world of data and became part of two White House initiatives under the Obama administration that focused on technology-related problems. The first, XDATA, was part of the White House’s “Big Data” initiative in which King wrote open-source code to tackle the challenge of the massive explosion of big data, to “help people make sense of the deluge.” The second involved stemming the wave of ISIS recruitment on social media.
Through 2012, King continued working with the government to solve other social issues. He worked alongside an anti-human trafficking task force with the United States Attorney’s Office in Connecticut, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Services and State Police. King recounted how one morning, on his way to teach a class at Jackson, he was able to deploy a novel algorithm that he had developed to find a person who was trafficking a missing child.
King began at Jackson in 2014 and now teaches an introductory class on artificial intelligence. His past course offerings focused on big data, Python, anti-human trafficking and counter-terrorist financing. According to King, he is excited at the ability to think aloud with his students about “questions without clear answers, questions and answers that could well change the course of the next century.”
“AI is fascinating as it pulls together philosophy, statistics, psychology and computer science,” King wrote. “In contemplating it, I think we contemplate what it means to be human.”
The most meaningful part of his work, King said, is watching his students succeed. Two of his former students, Libby Lange ’22 and Josh Lam SOM ’23, were recently featured in The New York Times for work they had done in King’s Python class.
Nick Marwell ’21, a former student of King’s, described King as defining his academic experience at Yale and emphasized how deeply King cares for his students.
“He has a way of bringing life to a classroom discussion that makes you wish the two hour seminar could go for three,” Marwell said. “Dr. King is not just identifying how data will change the world for the better, he is actually going out and building solutions to those problems with his own two hands.”
The Jackson Institute for Global Affairs will transition into the Jackson School of Global Affairs this fall with Jim Levinsohn, the current director of the Jackson Institute, serving as its founding dean. King described teaching at the Jackson Institute as similar to working at an “academic ‘startup’” with the goal of empowering a community of talented people. The challenge in its transition, he said, is to maintain that spirit as it matures.
“Casey King is one of the most multi-talented people I’ve ever met,” Levinsohn said. “He’s brought all that expertise to Jackson and our graduate and undergraduate students have clearly been beneficiaries.”
Most recently, King won a $1 million grant from the Defense Research Projects Agency as part of their AI Next Campaign. His research will focus on protecting financial markets from attacks and detecting such attacks. DARPA’s previous research created the internet, GPS and stealth technologies.
King’s concerns about AI are much less to do with the technology itself, and more to do with the way that people view it — and ultimately, humanity.
“Fears of an AI planet are unreasonable and fueled by terminator-esque myths that really fail to fully understand how machines ‘think,’” King said. “Second, we need to stop looking to AI and technology as humanity’s savior, replacement, or bane, and start celebrating, again, the remarkable and singular essence of human beings and human innovation.”
His philosophical approach towards his research can be felt in how he sees his life, too. He said that he got to where he is now through “a commitment to iterating rather than being.”
“We are all born as a beta version of our best possible selves,” King said. “And if we are willing to grow and inquire and learn and work with humility and a true intellectual curiosity, there are few constraints that cannot be managed, and few ‘why nots?’ that cannot be answered.”
King was nominated in October 2021 to serve on President Biden’s AI Advisory Committee.
Correction, Feb. 2: This article preciously stated that King earned a doctorate in philosophy, not history. It has been updated.