The field of artificial intelligence (AI) is booming. It's expected to create 2.3 million jobs by 2020, and around three-fourths of tech leaders plan on hiring more AI talent, according to a July report.
An October 2017 survey of 260 organizations found 80% of companies are investing in AI, with one third believing they need to invest more over the next three years.
But is the standard C-suite able to handle the enlarged focus on the emerging technology? Do businesses need a chief AI officer to fully and properly handle AI in the enterprise?
AI projects and strategy currently fall under the CTO or top tech leader at many businesses, our sister site ZDNet reported. But a dedicated role—the CAIO—may become necessary as more companies consider AI deployment. Around two-thirds of organizations expect to hire a CAIO in the future, according to Forbes.
"It's easy to see a scenario, over the next decade, where every enterprise-class business would have an AIO," said Elliott Yama, chief data analyst at Apttus. "The importance of AI for new revenue models and its impact on existing revenue models dictates that AI is an essential component of strategy, requiring visionary, executive leadership."
But analysts seem to agree that CAIOs remain uncommon and probably unnecessary for most businesses at this point in time. Michele Goetz, principal analyst at Forrester, said there are currently very few CAIOs and that most companies don't need one.
SEE: IT leader's guide to the future of artificial intelligence (Tech Pro Research)
"To designate this as another chief will cause conflicts with too many cooks in the kitchen," Goetz said. "Ideally, a Chief Digital Officer or Chief Technology Officer who is already looking at how analytics, data, and technology to drive the business competitively has the leadership skills and experience to lead."
New Chief X Officer roles come up quite often, and are usually over-hyped, according to Gartner analyst Andrew Horne, adding he hadn't heard of a CAIO before. "They are rarely as senior as the title suggests and are often a way for a company to signal that it's paying attention to a trend without actually doing very much," Horne said.
Even some in the field say the position may be unneeded. Gurjeet Singh, the executive chairman at financial services AI firm Ayasdi, is one of them.
"Organizationally, where would (the CAIO) sit in the business? If there is not a clear path to driving the business forward, this role will become as much of an impediment as a facilitator," Singh said.
But some businesses do need a CAIO. If a business is working on both using AI and advancing AI, or is creating a permanent AI lab, it probably needs a dedicated CAIO, Goetz said.
In other businesses that are simply using AI, the position may be a data or analytics-focused executive with AI added to the end of their existing job title, Goetz said.
"Usually, it's better for a company's senior executives in the areas that are affected by a new trend or technology to take the lead in figuring out how to take advantage," Horne said. The affected areas depend on the industry, Horne said, and IT and the CIO should typically be involved too.
For teams that need one, a CAIO typically needs experience with technology, data, and analytics, Goetz said. They should also have a business modeling, strategic planning, and customer experience background.
"The technical and analytic skills can be sourced but this role needs a stronger background in the industry and business management to translate what is needed for business evolution and innovation to guide the design and development of an objective driven system over an instruction driven system," Goetz said.
Inbenta CEO Jordi Torras said that as more companies adopt AI and machine learning, some smaller titles will be merged into a more strategic role that understands AI's value beyond the hype and how to best utilize it in the business.
What do CAIOs do?
A CAIO's background, responsibilities, and exact title depends on the company itself, according to people in similar roles. For example, Knowmail's head of AI, Yury Gubman, uses 15 years of machine learning experience to lead the research and development behind the company's inbox productivity algorithm, create learning features, and improve the algorithm's accuracy.
Meanwhile, Josh Sutton, the global head of data and AI at Publicis.Sapient, is more customer-focused, helping the company's clients select the best way to use AI to boost customer loyalty and engagement. Yama, whose company focuses on AI solutions, works on business strategy and creating and improving customer offerings and deployments.
SEE: Quick glossary: Artificial intelligence (Tech Pro Research)
KenSci's head of AI and CTO, Ankur Teredesai, does a mix of everything, starting his day with examining customer solutions and ending with working on making AI models more transparent.
"The main focus for those leading AI is to help organizations utilize these systems for enhancing existing business activities and operations, improve customer experience, or enhance and create new products that are AI powered," Goetz said.
Instead of a singular role, some companies may benefit more from creating an AI center of excellence, Singh said.
"The center of excellence will prioritize use cases, match vendors/needs, provide education and manage deployments," Singh said, adding the approach is a proven way to incubate emerging technologies.
While some companies simply don't need a CAIO, others may not see the benefit of hunting to find a person with the right skills and then bringing them onboard. Return on investment is important to remember, Yama said. Dedicating a person to leading AI efforts may pay off in the long run as the field continues to grow.
"The driver: Realize and maintain revenue growth, and run at scale in the enterprise," Yama said. "The future will belong to those players who gain differential insights, and optimize business performance from AI."
As is the case with all disruptive technologies, "those companies that adapt faster to the a new environment will enjoy a competitive advantage, that can propel the growth of the business ahead of competitors," Torras said. "No one company will want to be left behind, and your CAIO has to be leading that change internally, sooner rather than later."
- Special report: IT jobs in 2020: A leader's guide (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
- How ML and AI will transform business intelligence and analytics (ZDNet)
- Here are the top 3 benefits and barriers to AI adoption (TechRepublic)
- Analytics in 2018: AI, IoT and multi-cloud, or bust (ZDNet)
- Machine learning: The smart person's guide (TechRepublic)
Olivia Krauth is a Multiplatform Reporter at TechRepublic.