Are Chief AI Officers Really Necessary?

With the boardroom now looking bloated, do you really need a CAIO?


The speed at which technology has developed over the past decade has created an increasingly bloated C-suite. Chief Information Officer, Chief Technology Officer, Chief Data Officer, Chief Digital Officer, Chief Analytics Officer, Chief Algorithm Officer, etc… the list is endless, it’s a wonder they can all fit in a boardroom, let alone stay in their lanes when it comes to defining who has responsibility for what. Which makes it difficult to see the argument that AI requires board level representation - as propagated by people such as chief scientist at Baidu Research and AI guru Andrew Ng - as anything other than one for another unnecessary complication.

The importance that AI will have in coming years is not in question. It will cause upheaval at almost every level of society, from the world of work to how we travel. The argument that there should be an expert at C-suite level to help companies fully exploit it is persuasive. Many companies were caught short by the rise of the internet, assuming that it was either a fad or that their own limited knowledge would suffice. They soon went out of business as a result. Early AI adopters will - as did early internet adopters - have a tremendous competitive advantage. Those who go even further and take an ‘AI first’ approach, putting the tech at the heart of their strategy moving forward, will likely see even greater success.

A Chief AI Officer (CAIO) can fill a number of important functions necessary for ensuring that their organization is well positioned for AI adoption. First, they can take a view across the entire company to best understand its potential application in each department and the scale of the implementation challenge, designating AI expertise and technology from a centralized team according to need. As Ng notes, AI’s relative immaturity means that talent remains thin on the ground, and it is unlikely that the talent you can get will want to be restricted to any one product or sector. A (good) CAIO will set out a roadmap around how to integrate AI with the company's overall strategy and fight to ensure resources are available where required.

A CAIO will also ensure that a holistic approach is taken to implementation. AI is yet to become fully autonomous and still needs human interaction to ensure that it is using the right training data and behaving as it is supposed to. This is not just the job of AI experts but everyone in the company, and a CAIO can lead a center of excellence from which employees can learn best practices around the technology. For AI to work effectively, people will need to trust it, and this comes firstly from ensuring transparency around any issues that could occur. Employees will also need to trust that they are not going to be replaced, so CAIO’s will be able to show them how they can work with AI, rather than against it.

Another way the CAIO can help is in selecting the right AI software. There is a temptation for those lacking knowledge in any new technology to get bamboozled by salesmen and marketing and end up with the shiniest new products on the market, rather than products that don’t suit their needs. Many products will be marketed as AI that simply aren’t, and these will need to be filtered out. They will also require an in-depth knowledge of how the technology works, not just to know who to hire and to lead from the front, but to convince the C-suite that it is worthwhile, which also requires a sound knowledge of the business and where it could be valuable.

So what you're looking for is a CAIO who not only knows the technology inside out, but also has intimate knowledge of the business and how AI can drive profits. Do you know many people like this? Don't worry. Companies need to understand the benefits and challenges that AI can bring and how to integrate it into their strategies, but does this really mean a CAIO is needed? Other technologies such as blockchain and IoT are likely to prove highly disruptive too in coming years, so will they too need a senior leader who reports directly to the CEO? You don’t want to hide AI in the bowels of other departments and it will need to be a centralized department, but equally you don’t want your C-suite swollen to ridiculous levels, with everyone working at crossed purposes. If every new bit of tech has someone fighting its corner to the CEO, they will eventually get crowded out and nobody will have a say. A Chief Technology Officer’s role is to take charge of new technology. AI is a new technology, and should surely fall under their remit. When it comes to ensuring AI has the data required, the Chief Data Officer can take charge. It is, perhaps, better to have simply a Head of AI with a strong grasp of the technology who reports to the CTO and works closely alongside them throughout implementation, using their strong grasp of the business. Maybe call them a CAIO if you really want, although you do start to wonder at what point calling everyone a Chief … Officer starts to render the term redundant.


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