Your business probably needs a Chief Artificial Intelligence Officer

From tech start-ups to companies born before digital, all kinds of organizations are appointing a senior executive responsible for artificial intelligence.

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Kimberly Cho

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Artificial intelligence (AI) is now playing a major part in our everyday interactions, whether it’s dictating an email reply to an automated transcription service, asking a question of a virtual assistant or looking at personalized ads. While consumers and companies alike have become accustomed to using AI daily, many large enterprises haven’t fully realized its potential in their work.

NewVantage Partners research found less than 15 percent of leading organizations have put AI capabilities into widespread production. In a bid to make the most of AI opportunities, some companies have introduced a new role to their C-suite (senior executive) – the Chief AI Officer, or CAIO.

Having a CAIO could give new insight and skill vital to business success. One of the most urgent areas where CAIO leadership is needed is in AI ethics. Knowing when to use and not use AI raises complex questions about customer and employee data. These require a deep level of knowledge to answer.

With BCG research finding 70 percent of digital transformation fails to meet its objectives, a leader in AI overseeing technology projects could tip the scales by using advanced AI tools more effectively.

AI insights in the C-suite

Oliver Christie, CAIO at healthcare technology firm PertexaHealthTech, says the insights a CAIO can offer may change everything.

“My role is a mix of the technical, so answering questions like, “What can be done successfully now with existing data and what are the pitfalls around this,” and innovation, with questions like, “What business structure must change and how can we better understand customers through data?”” explains Christie.

Someone in the C-suite who understands AI can have a powerful impact on the bottom line. Companies achieving most with AI are more than twice as likely to say they have a knowledgeable AI champion in the C-suite, according to a McKinsey report.

Breaking down data silos and providing a voice for how leaders can best use AI will become a more pressing issue as AI technology advances. But can’t a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) or Chief Information Officer (CIO) lead on AI decisions?

Should you add AI to another executive’s responsibilities?

“I think that’s not the right decision and not the right way of thinking about how to embrace new technology,” says Christie. “You need someone who will step between data science and the business process, who is part of the C-suite but can challenge how things are done at the moment.”

Normally, a CTO has comprehensive knowledge of software available and takes the lead in setting it up, scaling it and supporting data security and cybersecurity initiatives. Pablo Zegers, Co-founder and CAIO at software company Anastasia, believes that while many CTOs use off-the-shelf technologies and build on them, CAIOs approach software differently. “Artificial intelligence is a Lego piece, but you need to design AI from the ground up. That’s something most CTOs don’t know how to do.”

To make the most out of a CAIO, companies must identify a business need before creating a role. Unless the CAIO position is well-defined and has the autonomy to make decisions on AI that affect the whole company, rethink what you need.

“If you bring a CAIO into your company without the CEO’s backing, they’ll have problems. And if your CAIO doesn’t have a clear goal, it’s going to be fruitless,” says Zegers.

All industries must consider AI

Arguments for creating a CAIO role at a tech start-up or large tech enterprise link to core business, but it’s not just these types of companies that can benefit from a CAIO, says Ambica Rajagopal, Group CAIO at tire manufacturer Michelin. “For companies not born digital, there can be adoption challenges and barriers to reaping the benefits of AI. Bringing a strategic AI focus is a driving reason to hire a CIAO.”

Combining the skillset of an AI expert with the C-suite’s business expertise is a tempting proposition for companies looking to catch the AI wave. Despite the benefits a CAIO can bring, Rajagopal thinks each company should consider AI’s importance to their business and how well they’ve done so far in achieving cultural change using it.

Establishing a dedicated leadership position for AI can help ensure you notice innovative technologies that would benefit the business. The right CAIO can reduce the steep learning curve of implementing AI.

The number of CAIOs in boardrooms may pale compared to established C-suite titles, but as AI matures, this may not be the case for long. “As AI technologies gain relevance across almost all areas of large enterprises, there’s an argument for peeling out AI from the business intelligence and data umbrellas,” Rajagopal concludes.

The time when executives could delay decisions on how to use AI in their business has long gone. Those business leaders who want to take the next step with AI will need to act quickly to find the sweet spot.

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About authors

Finbarr Toesland is a London-based journalist who has written for NBC News, Reuters and BBC. He has a master’s in African Studies from University of Cambridge.