AI will change everything – even the C-suite

AI will likely call for new executive appointments to oversee business applications.

We’ve seen a number of new titles crop up in recent history – chief data officer, chief experience offer and, in a few unfortunate instances, chief magic officer. Whether these roles have staying power remains to be seen, but they’re about to be joined by another new kid in the C-suite: The chief artificial intelligence officer. Or something like that.

Huge chief executive Aaron Shapiro wrote, “the coming smart internet era will require more business adaptation than anything else to date”, with artificial intelligence (AI) offering marketers in particular opportunities in conversational interfaces, personalization, automation and advanced analytics. And, as with so many new technologies, he said the time to start planning is now.

So it is perhaps not surprising there’s something of an ensuing debate about whether AI in business warrants CAIOs.

Andrew Ng, chief scientist of web services company Baidu, told Fortune the answer is yes because in part AI stands to transform every industry and has a "relatively clear path".

Kristian Hammond, chief scientist of technology company Narrative Science, on the other hand, said no in the Harvard Business Review because “AI isn’t magic” and “understanding [technologies] does not require that you hire a wizard or unicorn to deal with them”.

And here’s a spoiler: For the most part, marketers are in Ng’s camp – except for Keith Soljacich, vice president and director of technology at marketing and technology agency DigitasLBi, who said, “Having an AI presence should not be fundamentally different from having a website or an app. All are digital entities with data controlled by that company. Whether a consumer receives information via their mobile phone or via an AI agent, the information is sourced from the same place. Most commonly that is owned by a CIO.”

The CAIO

Samih Fadli, chief intelligence officer at digital agency SapientRazorfish, on the other hand, said AI is becoming increasingly widespread in the IoT – and calls for a unique skill set.

“So definitely brands who are serious about delivering intelligent customer experiences and who care about engagement will have to invest in creating a role in the organization who can take ownership of cognitive automation and other things,” Fadli said.

Ben Plomion, chief magic officer of computer vision company GumGum, pointed to research that shows 55% of CMOs – presumably chief marketing officers – expect AI to have a greater impact on marketing and communications than social media.

The challenge with AI, at least from a marketing perspective, is that it tends be confined within – buzzword alert – silos, Plomion said.

“For example, the programmatic experts…are unlikely to speak to the social media community managers who are managing the chatbot experiences,” he added. “Where AI really shines is its ability [to] improve a customer experience by reducing human touchpoints and providing a personalized experience for every user. Without the right data and the mindset to act on the data, AI will not achieve its full potential.”

As a result, Plomion said the need for CAIOs is “paramount since this person can bridge the different marketing silos and can unify the customer experience”.

In addition, Fadli said a new C-level executive focused on artificial intelligence can help ensure sponsorship/buy-in from the executive team.

Passing the AI buck

AI is also likely too much for existing executives to take on themselves.

In fact, Matt Yorke, chief marketing officer of media company SourceMedia, noted, “CMOs today already have short tenures and face mammoth tasks in meeting the real-time, always-on expectations of today’s consumers.”

“Therefore [personalization powered by AI] cannot just be something [CMOs] are expected to be able to deliver on,” he added. “As the technology matures this role may well also be the bridge between marketing and R&D/product development. Real-time customer feedback creating a real-time product innovation feedback loop, such as how IBM Watson Ads are creating 1-to-1 offers for brands today.”

In addition, Layne Harris, vice president and head of technology at digital marketing agency 360i, said if we do get to the point of CAIOs, the role may ironically be heavily supported by AI itself.

“Like in mathematics, where we’ve seen mathematical proofs so complex that only other AIs can rigorously check every step, AI output from agencies and brands may only get proper oversight from – or in combination with – additional AI solutions,” Harris said.

Semantics

And as more companies realize how valuable their customer data is – sometimes more so than their products – Kevin Lester, vice president of engineering and search at stock photo company Shutterstock, said maximizing customer data is becoming a significant priority, which is why he thinks a dedicated CXO is likely a good investment.

“The CXO would have a simple goal: Make maximum use of customer data to increase company efficiency, drive new product development and expand business offerings,” Lester added. “Although I'd stop short of labeling these executives chief artificial intelligence officers, in the future I could see the emergence of chief intelligence officers who supervise how and when you apply data to help grow your business. These types of roles are already in high demand at the manager, director and vice president levels and with the increased demand in the field, it stands to reason we'll continue to grow departments and businesses in this direction.”

In addition, Lester said we've only scratched the surface on how AI and deep learning can be implemented to better serve customers, so the role of a chief intelligence officer would set a company's policy, strategy and application of data to drive the business forward.

“This isn't about patching up problems as much as sensing where the industry can go five or ten years down the line,” Lester added.

Ajay Khanna, vice president of product marketing at data management software company Reltio, agreed centralizing AI, along with analytics and underlining data management, is critical because in part the effectiveness of machine learning depends on the reliability of the data and the training sets developed for the data scientist.

“Leading organizations are realizing this already and creating a single source of truth for data across the organization, bringing data management, machine learning and analytics within the same offices,” Khanna said. “But to ensure data reliability, discover [relationships] across data elements and effectively use predictive analytics and machine learning to extract relevant insights and intelligent recommendations for business users – all key elements in enabling AI to help businesses make better decisions faster – a modern approach to data management is required. Today, we see this happening more and more under the auspices of a chief data officer. Whether the CDO role will morph into that of a chief AI officer or subsume its responsibilities depends on the organization size and product and business models. Semantics aside, there has never been a greater need to standardize data management and analytics, or to make sure that those working within each are part of the same team. We must be vigilant not to neglect the data, and also not to create data or AI silos.”

But don’t necessarily start polishing job specs yet…

At the same time, the CAIO role is not relevant for every single organization right this red, hot minute.

“It’s going to depend on the maturity of the organization and the size of the organization as well as the industry in which they operate,” Fadli said.

For companies that do a lot of routine work and have a lot of inefficiencies, like, say, banks, “investing in AI and creating a role specific to AI makes a lot of sense”, Fadli said.

Other companies simply aren’t big enough to warrant investing in a role focused on driving automation. In fact, Fadli said only about 50% of companies qualify for a CAIO now – but there will be an exponential increase in the need for roles like this over the next two years. For now, however, Fadli recommended the CMO, CIO or CTO take ownership of AI-driven initiatives in companies that are not big and/or old enough to warrant a CAIO now.

Similarly, Randy Antin, vice president of marketing at marketing analytics firm Jumpshot, said it’s too early to have someone in the C-suite solely focused on AI.

“Many, if not a majority of, brands are still getting their heads around the chief data officer role and how it fits into the executive team,” he said. “In truth, AI is so dependent on data that for most, having a CDO or a CTO oversee AI with a VP or SVP of AI focused on it works well.”

And according to Joey Camire, strategist at innovation and brand design consultancy Sylvain Labs, this role may not be necessary until AI itself has consciousness.

“When that happens, you're going to need someone who is both fluent in the engineering and computer science but is also a competent psychologist. If you have an AI that is carrying some major workload for a company, doing something that could dramatically affect a company's P&L, you need to make sure that AI is healthy,” Camire said. “That means that it is technically performing at peak speed and efficiency, doing what it's being asked to do. Today a CTO or some other similar role can mange this function. However, if AI makes the leap forward where it is making its own decisions and achieving some level of sentience, you need someone who can manage the psychological health of that worker. In the way that companies employ HR or company psychologists to manage the emotional health and safety of a workplace, it's a logical conclusion that a conscious AI worker would need the same kind of attention. This is the role of a CAIO — the person who manages both the technical as well as emotional health of an AI.”