Does your business need a chief AI officer?

Someone senior needs to ensure the implementation of AI is safe and secure. Here's what the experts believe that executive should look like.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
People walking in an illustration of a brain
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From automation to machine learning and generative artificial intelligence (AI), emerging technologies are changing the companies we work for and the roles we fulfill.

While it's already clear these technologies will have a big impact on repetitive manual tasks and mid-tier managerial responsibilities, what do AI and automation mean for the upper echelons of the organization? CIOs are traditionally the executives who oversee technology within a business. These custodians are a steady hand when it comes to the procurement and deployment of IT.

Also: If AI is the future of your business, should the CIO be the one in control?

However, the use of AI has risen significantly during the past 12 months with the launch of OpenAI's ChatGPT and a slew of similar technologies.

The rapid pace of development means it would be tough for anyone, let alone a CIO who's already responsible for managing day-to-day IT operations, to oversee the rollout of AI.

So, given the rapid rise of emerging technologies, do businesses need a chief AI officer?

Avivah Litan, distinguished VP analyst at Gartner, says chief AI officers are being appointed as a best-practice technique in some organizations -- and she gives an example.

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"Global financial institutions do have chief AI risk officers reporting into CFOs or the bank's chief risk officer," she said to ZDNET. However, not every business faces the risks of a bank. And Litan says many organizations won't be able to afford a specialist AI office.

For most companies, the best way to deal with the nascent risks and opportunities of AI is to create a collective approach that brings experts from across the business together.

"That's why you see task forces," she says. "And, generally, it's much better to have line risk. It's better to have clear responsibilities and task forces." Implementing and overseeing AI successfully is a complicated conundrum that touches on all parts of the enterprise.

Litan says all organizations must recognize AI is not only a novel phenomenon, but one that can't be treated like just any other IT application.

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"It's definitely different. From the security point of view, that's been our message all along: It's a new vector," she says. "And you can't use the old controls to manage risk. The same is true with opportunities. You can't just use your old business processes to manage AI opportunities. It's a different animal."

Jarrod Phipps, executive vice president and CIO at auto specialist Holman, is another expert who says any decision about whether a business needs a chief AI officer is likely to depend on size and scale. Yet, he believes having someone senior who's responsible for AI should be seen as a good thing for most organizations.

"I don't think it can hurt -- and the reason is that there is now a completely new security paradigm in place," says Phipps in an interview with ZDNET, echoing the sentiments of Gartner's Litan.

He envisages a chief AI leader as sitting somewhere between the chief information security officer and a strategic data leader. The AI leader must ensure opportunities are grabbed without taking undue risks.

Also: A thorny question: Who owns code, images, and narratives generated by AI?

"There's a security and data privacy element to what we're going to be doing, but there's also this dramatic experience component to it. And you must constantly keep the balance between the two," he says. "You'll have to make some hard trade-offs. And any time there's hard trade-offs to be made, having consistency around how you execute those trade-offs is really important."

Phipps says Holman has created an AI council. Much like the AI task forces that Litan envisages, the council at Holman analyzes potential use cases and consists of a range of senior-level people from across the company, including Phipps.

In the longer term, he believes a chief AI leader who is singularly responsible for emerging technology could help businesses balance the risks and rewards of AI.

That's a sentiment that resonates with Lily Haake, head of technology and digital executive search at recruiter Harvey Nash, who told ZDNET that it's "entirely possible" companies will need a chief AI officer in the future.

Also: What technology analysts are saying about the future of generative AI

However, we're not at that point yet.

"Most organizations aren't even piloting this stuff and the data quality isn't there in many companies to need that sort of investment, but potentially, in the longer term, those requirements will exist," she says. When that situation arises, Haake expects chief AI officers will have strengths in some technical areas, such as algorithms, natural language processing, and machine learning, that an average employee wouldn't be expected to understand.

"And that person will need to have the compliance and the regulatory oversight as well. Where they will sit, I don't know, because I think there's an argument they would still sit under the CIO or the CDO," she says. "But everything depends on how quickly AI proliferates. Maybe in 10 or 15 years, there'll be a chief AI officer who sits on the executive board and has a helicopter view across the organization because, by then, AI is likely going to be imperative to every facet of the business."

For now, though, the idea of appointing another tech chief to sit alongside a CIO, CTO, CDO, or CISO is probably a step too, says Omer Grossman, global CIO at CyberArk.

Also: A new role emerges for software leaders: Overseeing generative AI

In the case of the growing range of enterprises that like to think of themselves as technology businesses, AI will simply be part of everyday working practices. In companies where AI is a key element of the business's products or services, Grossman expects another senior executive to take on AI leadership responsibilities.

"This is where you would think the head of R&D or the chief product officer, who is the person who's responsible for the company delivering its products or services, should basically oversee the use and embedding of AI capabilities into products," he says.

Like Gartner's Litan, Grossman said AI leaders are likely to play an important role in heavily regulated sectors, particularly financial services. "In a more traditional enterprise, such as a bank, there might be a chief AI officer who has an AI center of excellence or some kind of architecture or framework that elevates all the company's deliverables using AI." Grossman said. 

Andy Moore, chief data officer (CDO) at Bentley Motors, is another executive who is unsure that most businesses need a single executive who's responsible for AI.

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Like other experts, Moore refers to size and scale as being deciding factors. He says Bentley isn't a big enough company to start building its own costly large language models (LLMs) from scratch, which is the kind of project you'd expect a C-level chief AI officer to oversee.

At present, AI leadership success for most companies will be about looking for best-of-breed LLMs -- and that's probably a skill set that's within the compass of a CIO and a dedicated task force that helps guide the business on use cases, risks, and rewards.

"It's about having that mindset that says, 'OK, what LLM will give me what I need, and how do I make sure I don't leave a footprint of my data on there, while still being able to draw in the benefits of emerging technology," says Moore.

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