Chief AI Officer: Executives discuss the role, pitfalls, and business philosophy

As artificial intelligence becomes commonplace across industries, more companies are looking to add a dedicated leader to the C-suite. But what does that look like?

Automation has long been depicted as an unstoppable force with an insatiable appetite for human jobs and the dawn of artificial intelligence (AI) only added another mysterious layer to the dynamic. While it cannot be denied that automation has, of course, changed the look of the labor force it should also be noted that digital transformation also brings with it a spectrum of entirely new jobs. In fact, AI created three new positions for every one position it killed in 2018.
 
As more companies look to incorporate AI solutions, there becomes an increased need for an in-house professional guiding an organization's AI strategy. This modern addition to the executive suite is known as the Chief Artificial Intelligence Officer (CAIO). So should organizations start making room for a CAIO or is the role the executive equivalent of vaporware? TechRepublic spoke with various tech executives to gain a better understanding of the demands and considerations shaping this nascent role.

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Merging AI, data with the business model

From telehealth chatbots to smart elevators, an increasing number of organizations across industries are looking to leverage AI to enhance their business model. As companies begin to adopt these technologies, there's a steep learning curve and numerous legal and ethical concerns to consider.
 
"With the explosion of data we've seen over the last decade, many companies are struggling with how to use AI and automation to better access and utilize all of this information, in a safe, efficient, and ethical way," said Vijay Narayanan, chief AI officer at ServiceNow. "For example, businesses need to ensure customer data is never used without getting their permission first, and bias always needs to be eliminated. The role of the CAIO is to help lead a business through these steps to ensure the technology is used correctly."

Assembling a balanced executive team

It's clear that many organizations will look to adopt a CAIO or similar roles to cater to these needs. However, there are pitfalls organizations can make when incorporating a new executive alongside the existing suite. As is the case with any position, cultural fit and philosophy are key.
 
"The CAIO, CTO, and CIO may differ religiously on approach. Be careful to avoid religion," said Monte Zweben, CEO and co-founder of Splice Machine.
 
Business philosophy and long-term objectives will certainly play a central role as companies recruit CAIOs or promote individuals internally for this new position. It's imperative that organizations also ensure that the CAIO complements the existing executive suite.
 
"A CAIO is a specialist partner to the CTO and CIO almost like the general counsel and CFO. They should be focused on growing other teams," Zweben said.
 
While this approach may work for some teams, others emphasized the importance of granting the CAIO more control rather than confining them to a more consultative capacity. 
 
"Some companies look at the CAIO role as a purely advisory role exploring future technologies, which greatly diminishes the effectiveness of this role," said Narayanan.

AI maturity and CAIO skill set

As organizations increase their AI maturity, the role of the CAIO also evolves. The position becomes less focused on leveraging almighty AI in a data scientist sense and shifts toward more of a business mindset. Part of the position is certainly based on AI research and AI applications, however, there's a second layer to the business thinking. Beena Ammanath, AI managing director, Deloitte Consulting, notes the importance of finding a balance between the business and technical mindset.
 
"Part of it is also looking at from a value profit perspective, right? And not doing research just for the sake of research," Ammanath said.

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In 2017, noted computer scientist Kristian J. Hammond penned "Please Don't Hire a Chief Artificial Intelligence Officer." Hammond warned that CAIO would bring  "the hammer of AI to the nails of whatever problems are lying around." This general idea exists as an anecdotal AI twist on Goodhart's law, in which an organization wholly prioritizes the use of AI rather than addressing ways to enhance the business model. Carefully outlining the CAIO position is one particular challenge, appropriately leveraging new technologies is another. At times, even these objectives overlap.

"There is always the risk that CAIO will try to solve any problem using AI. AI application should not be the ultimate goal of the business, it should rather be a tool. That is why it's important that CAIO reports to the tech executive (CTO) that actually is able to see the overall picture outside the AI context," Kirill Rebrov, CEO/CTO and co-founder of Demografy.

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