PROFILE: Jackson Institute’s Casey King talks about AI, Big Data and humanity
Courtesy of Casey King
“I’ve always been a little shy about this stuff,” William Casey King GRD ’10 said when he was first approached about a profile. “Honestly, I’m much more interested in making my students cool, than myself.”
For someone with a career as storied as his, King is extremely modest. As Capstone Program Director at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs since 2014, King works at the intersection of policy and technology. He was also founding executive director of the Yale Center for Analytical Sciences from 2010 to 2014.
Having started his academic career in the humanities, King’s path to data science was not immediately clear. He graduated from Yale in 2010 with a doctorate in philosophy as the final doctoral student of the late David Brion Davis, a former Sterling professor of history. The transition to data science, he said, was initially the hardest part of his career.
“It was during a time when there weren’t a lot of YouTube tutorials or coding courses,” King said. “I had to learn on my own to code, to apply statistical methods, but in the end, I am convinced that people trained in the humanities make the best data scientists because the humanities train people to think, to reason with incomplete information. , to draw on the knowledge of the domain to imagine the “why”. »
With that determination, King ventured into the world of data and participated in two White House initiatives under the Obama administration that focused on technology-related issues. The first, XDATA, was part of the White House’s “Big Data” initiative in which King wrote open-source code to address the challenge of the massive explosion of big data, to “help people make sense in the deluge”. The second was to stem the tide of Islamic State recruitment on social media.
Until 2012, King continued to work with the government to address other social issues. He has worked alongside an anti-human trafficking task force with the United States Attorney’s Office in Connecticut, the FBI, the Department of Home Services, and the State Police. King recounted how one morning, on his way to a class in Jackson, he was able to deploy a new algorithm he had developed to find someone who was trafficking a missing child.
King started at Jackson in 2014 and now teaches an introductory course in artificial intelligence. His past course offerings have focused on big data, Python, countering human trafficking, and counterterrorism financing. According to King, he is excited about the ability to think aloud with his students about “questions without clear answers, questions and answers that may well change the course of the next century.”
“AI is fascinating because it brings together philosophy, statistics, psychology, and computer science,” King wrote. “Contemplating it, I think we contemplate what it means to be human.”
The most meaningful part of her job, King said, is watching her 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 did in King’s Python class.
Nick Marwell ’21, an alumnus of King’s, described King as defining his academic experience at Yale and underscored how deeply King cares about his students.
“He has a way of bringing a class discussion to life that makes you wish the two-hour seminar could last three hours,” Marwell said. “Dr. King doesn’t just identify how data will change the world for the better, he actually goes out and crafts solutions to these problems with his own hands.
The Jackson Institute for Global Affairs will transition to 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 a university “start-up” with the goal of empowering a community of talented people. The challenge of his transition, he said, is maintaining that spirit as he matures.
“Casey King is one of the most versatile people I’ve ever met,” Levinsohn said. “He brought all of that expertise to Jackson and our graduate and undergraduate students were clearly the beneficiaries.”
Most recently, King won a $1 million grant from the Defense Research Projects Agency as part of its AI Next campaign. His research will focus on the protection of financial markets against attacks and the detection of such attacks. DARPA’s previous research created the Internet, GPS, and stealth technologies.
King’s concerns about AI have much less to do with the technology itself and more with how people view it — and, ultimately, with humanity.
“The fears of an AI planet are unreasonable and fueled by terminator-esque mythos that really fail to fully understand how machines ‘think,'” King said. “Second, we need to stop viewing AI and technology as the savior, substitute or bane of humanity, and start celebrating, again, the remarkable and singular essence of human beings and innovation. human.”
His philosophical approach to his research is also reflected in the way he sees his life. He said he got to where he is now through “a commitment to iterate rather than be”.
“We are all born as a beta version of our best possible selves,” King said. “And if we are willing to grow, inquire, learn, and work with humility and genuine intellectual curiosity, there are few constraints that cannot be managed, and few ‘why not?’ this cannot be answered.
King was nominated in October 2021 to serve on President Biden’s AI advisory committee.