Should your next big hire be a chief AI officer?

Should your next big hire be a chief AI officer?As companies increasingly turn to artificial intelligence (AI) to communicate with customers, make sense of big data and find answers to vexing questions, some say it's time to think about hiring a chief AI officer.

A chief artificial intelligence Officer–or CAIO–could round out your C-level execs, sitting at the big table with your CIO, CFO, CTO and CEO.

"AI is going to be really important to some companies–enough to have top officers who will focus on just that," said Steve Chien, head of the artificial intelligence group for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "And beyond that, you'll want every employee thinking about how AI can improve what they do and you'll want a chief AI officer overseeing all of that. They should be constantly thinking about how AI can improve things."

Chien said there's growing interest in seating CAIOs at large companies. He's noticed this firsthand because he's been getting calls from headhunters looking to recruit him for the jobs.

While he hasn't taken the bait and loves his job at JPL, where he works with autonomous systems for space exploration, Chien said he's been approached by airlines, food manufacturers, mining companies and pharmaceuticals.

Not all of those companies were looking specifically for an executive-level manager, but they all were looking for someone to oversee artificial intelligence efforts, regardless of the job title.

The JPL doesn't have a CAIO, but Chien said there have been discussions about the need for one in an organization so focused on machine learning, AI, autonomy and robotics.

With interest in the use of AI growing at companies, it could make sense to have someone in charge of its use. According to a Forrester Research 2016 survey of 3,343 global data and analytics decision-makers, 41% of companies around the world are investing in AI and 20% are planning to invest in the technology next year.  

"AI is still immature and evolving quickly, so it is unreasonable to expect everyone in the C-suite to understand it completely," wrote Andrew Ng, a renowned AI scientist, in an article posted in November in the Harvard Business Review. "But if your industry generates a large amount of data, there is a good chance that AI can be used to transform that data into value. To the majority of companies that have data but lack deep AI knowledge, I recommend hiring a chief AI officer or a VP of AI."

Ng founded and led the Google Brain Deep Learning Project from 2011 to 2012 and was chief scientist at Chinese search company Baidu from 2014 to March of this year. Today he is an adjunct professor at Stanford University.

Since he's moving out of his position at Baidu, Ng said he's not doing interviews and that the article he wrote in November represents his views on the future of CAIOs.

"The benefit of a chief AI officer is having someone who can make sure AI gets applied across silos," Ng wrote. "A dedicated AI team has a higher chance of attracting AI talent and maintaining standards… But the dedicated team needs leadership, and I am seeing more companies hire senior AI leaders to build up AI teams across functions."

Not everyone agrees, however.

Brandon Purcell, an analyst at Forrester Research, said AI doesn't warrant its own C-level officer.

"I believe in the promise of AI, but it will be embedded in each line of business, and those lines of business will own those specific instances of AI," he said. "I don't think it will need its own chief. The person I think should spearhead AI is the chief data officer or the chief analytics officer because they understand how machine learning works."