Feb 23, 2024 - Technology

AI's hot new job now belongs to everyone

Illustration of a zero and one sitting in an office chair

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

"Chief AI officer" is one of the hottest new job titles, but some experts say AI strategy should be everyone's job.

Why it matters: Many organizations have decided that AI is too important and complicated to rely on one executive to develop and manage their strategy.

Catch-up quick: Organizations raced to develop AI ideas and leadership in 2023, culminating in President Biden ordering every federal agency to hire a chief AI officer (CAIO) by the start of 2024.

  • While many agencies have yet to appoint their CAIO, the role quickly won the label of hottest new job.

Driving the news: Department of Justice and SAP are two of the latest organizations to appoint a CAIO.

  • The DOJ appointed Jonathan Mayer as both the chief AI officer and the office's first chief science and technology advisor.
  • Mayer is an assistant professor in Princeton's computer science and public and international affairs departments.

The big picture: Some C-suite teams have found it difficult or impossible to source a CAIO with all the skills they need, while others tells Axios that hiring a CAIO is simply the wrong approach.

  • Alternatives include AI project teams, ethics committees and even "fractional CAIOs," which are folks who devote part of their time to AI leadership, sometimes at multiple organizations at once.
  • Rafee Tarafdar, Infosys chief technology officer, tells Axios that assigning sole responsibility for AI strategy to one person will generate lower returns than requiring all departments to sponsor AI initiatives.
  • "Companies need a dot connector with the technical expertise, strategic vision, and ability to get executive-level buy-in," says Ram Chakravarti, chief technology officer at BMC Software, and that's akin to finding an AI "unicorn," he tells Axios.

Between the lines: Because AI can disrupt both business models and specific tasks, the CEO might need to act as CAIO.

  • CAIOs are "just not scalable," Chris Bedi, the chief digital information officer at ServiceNow tells Axios.
  • Each senior executive needs to ask themselves "how do I transform my own function with AI?" Bedi thinks, because there won't be enough talented CAIOs to go around, and many will lack the resources and authority to successfully lead a transformation of each in an organization.

What's next: Fractional CAIOs are a middle way for uncertain CEOs, boards in need of an AI expert brain and for top AI talent that doesn't want to be locked down to one organization.

  • Raphael Ouzan, CEO at A.Team, which connects fractional CAIOs to organizations, says the market is driven by three factors: CEOs needing to be agile, the speed at which AI is creating threats to business models, and AI workers wanting different relationships with employers.
  • Top AI talent is committed to experimentation, Ouzan says. "Those set to truly develop AI expertise are, by definition, not wanting to be captured by only one organization."
  • AI researchers at big tech companies are often keen to work on different types of data, and open to work well outside Silicon Valley — including at law firms and hospitals, he says.

The other side: "Companies will be most successful with a strong CAIO who channels company-wide strategic priorities to guide AI efforts," Domino Data Lab CEO Nick Elprin tells Axios.

  • Relying on a bottom-up or decentralized approach to AI development "risks spreading resources too thin and creating a lot of noise and distraction," Elprin says.

The bottom line: Widespread adoption of AI in an organization will depend on mobilizing big sets of skills and people.

  • Steve Chase, KPMG's vice chair of AI and digital innovation, says the key to CEOs is finding AI leaders "who really understand the business and where the opportunity might be, and who can bring authority and motivation" to their work with a range of teams.
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