As artificial intelligence continues to be adopted by businesses of all shapes and sizes, tech giants such as Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft are investing in AI startups left, right and centre. It can be assumed that a hiring someone to lead the AI strategy and research is paramount to the success of the company. You’d be hard pressed to find a serious tech company that doesn’t have an AI team in place, and millions of dollars are being pumped into intelligent systems and solutions. Companies are no longer just hiring AI experts, but their entire business strategies centralise around their application.

But what does a Chief AI Officer (CAIO) do, and do we really need them? On one hand, yes. On the other, no.

In some cases it might be appropriate to have a chief AI officer, but in other cases organizations might want to have a more decentralized approach. Chirag Dekate, Research director, Gartner

Join the discussion:
Is a Chief AI Officer needed to drive an artificial intelligence strategy?
Cases in which a CAIO could be a positive hire

If your industry generates a large amount of data, the chances are you are (or should be!) using AI to transform this data into valuable customer insights. If you’ve been collecting and analysing data manually the introduction of AI would be an instantaneous advantage, saving an unbelievable amount of time and resources. In this case, the core business model would require a huge change. Restructuring of the way in which data is collected, used, and stored will require an expert to  lead the team and create a model that aligns with the business strategy. If this sounds like your strategy, hiring someone to lead and oversee the process would be beneficial to company success.

AI is going to be really important to some companies - enough to have top officers who will focus on just that. And beyond that, you'll want every employee thinking about how A.I. can improve what they do and you'll want a chief A.I. officer overseeing all of that. They should be constantly thinking about how A.I. can improve things. (Steve Chien, Head of AI Group, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory.)

Cases in which a CAIO could be a negative hire

Not all companies benefiting from AI are ‘tech’ companies. Retailers, healthcare solutions, finance companies and many more industries are implementing AI successfully as an optimisation tool. In these instances the strategy and reasoning behind the intelligent systems is something that requires an understanding from each of the existing roles. Each department of the company needs a grasp on what AI is, and what it means for the business. The organisation will require for example, a marketing manager who understands how AI will help them run more targeted campaigns and create more personalised experiences, a customer service manager who understands how data and AI can help them respond to issues and concerns more effectively.

In these instances you don’t want someone coming in to ‘comb your organisation looking for places to apply the AI technologies, effectively making the goal to use AI rather than to solve real problems’, explained Narrative Science’s Chief Scientist, Kristian J Hammond.  AI is an advantage for cross-industry organisations without being a part of the product. AI will help these companies solve real world problems, such as schedule management, marketing and logistics, but that doesn’t make them AI companies, and they shouldn’t be investing all their money in hiring a CAIO. Here, AI is an optimisation tool, but not part of the strategy.

How to identify whether you need a CAIO

Rather than asking the question of whether your business needs a CAIO, you should be asking yourself what your business goals are. If they are to solve problems, optimise efficiency, and improve your company offering, an AI Officer is possibly excessive. This isn’t to say that you don’t need employees who understand AI, you most definitely do, but these team members need to be focused on the AI solutions, and what it’s application can do to help you reach your overall business goal. However, if you’re building an AI company, this role will be integral to your success and growth.

What qualities should you be looking for?

This isn’t going to be an easy role to hire. The ideal candidate needs to have an overarching range of knowledge in AI, a tactical and strategic approach to tackling technical problems, as well as a comprehensive understanding of the company’s objective. The candidate will be responsible not only for implementing AI but ensuring that it’s being employed across all necessary aspects of the business in order to achieve the overall objective. This kind of employee will be a) hard to find, and b) incredibly expensive. So how about a dedicated AI team who can be slotted into relevant teams and focus on their expertise, working with the business strategist and other AI experts across the business? Potentially an appealing alternative.

If you’re still set on hiring a CAIO to manage the strategy, Andrew Ng shared his expertise with the Harvard Business Review with his advice on what you should be looking out for:

  • Good technical understanding of AI and data infrastructure. For example, they should ideally have built and shipped nontrivial machine learning systems. In the AI era, data infrastructure — how you organize your company’s databases and make sure all the relevant data is stored securely and accessibly — is important, though data infrastructure skills are arguably more common.

  • Ability to work cross-functionally. AI itself is not a product or a business. Rather, it is a foundational technology that can help existing lines of business and create new products or lines of business. The ability to understand and work with diverse business units or functional teams is therefore critical.

  • Strong intrapreneurial skills. AI creates opportunities to build new products, from self-driving cars to speakers you can talk to, that just a few years ago would not have been economical — or might even have been in the realm of science fiction. A leader who can manage intrapreneural initiatives will increase your odds of successfully creating such innovations for your industry.

  • Ability to attract and retain AI talent. This talent is highly sought after. Among new college graduates, I see a clear difference in the salaries of students who specialized in AI. A good chief AI officer needs to know how to retain talent, for instance by emphasizing interesting projects and offering team members the chance to continue to build their skill set.

  • Whether the need in your business is there for a CAIO, or you’re just beginning to consider employing AI in your strategy, it’s undeniable that advancements are rapid and powerful. As enterprises focus on applying them to solve business problems we will see a new model of businesses taking the top stop in their sectors with, or without CAIOs.

At the Deep Learning Sumut in San Francisco earlier this year, Danny Lange who hs worked as Head of Machine Learning for Unity and Uber as well as GM of Amazon, spoke about the business applicatioins of artificial intelligence. 'Machine learning uses algorithms to detect patterns in old data and build models that can be used to make predictions from new data.' He spoke about understanding the algorithms behind deep learning and how runing the infrastructure needed to build accurate models to deploy at scale can be very challenging.
Watch Danny's presentation here.

Additional Reading:

Is a Chief AI Officer Needed To Drive An AI Strategy? - Tech Target
Hiring Your First Chief AI Officer - Harvard Business Review
Think Twice Before You Hire A Chief AI Officer - CIO
Avoiding Being A Trophy Data Scientist - Peadar Coyle