Nearshore Americas

Breakdown: What Does a Chief AI Officer Actually Do?

The latest AI explosion has led to the emergence of a new member of the C-suite: the Chief AI Officer, or CAIO. 

Faced with the increasing relevance of AI, organizations of all sorts have rushed to appoint someone in charge of their overall AI-strategy. This has made the CAIO one of the hottest jobs in the market. 

Problem is that, in a way similar to the technology that justifies the role, everyone is still figuring out CAIOs.

The state of things: “AI leadership” roles are not new, but their prevalence in the business world and beyond has grown significantly in less than a decade.

  • The number of “Head of AI” roles (positions of high seniority, like department heads, VPs and directors) has tripled among global companies over the past five years alone, according to LinkedIn’s latest Future of Work Report. Since December 2022, their volume grew 13%. 
  • The role acquired a credibility boost after the White House made it mandatory for federal agencies, outlining in a memorandum the responsibilities and bona fides of anyone taking the job.
  • “It’s happening, but it is new. I myself am seeing more and more companies appoint CAIOs,” said Arti Raman, Founder and CEO of Generative AI firm Portal26. “This is different from the Chief Security Officer [CSO] and the Chief Information Officer [CIO]. It’s definitely happening, and I think it will happen more and more.”

Define it: Organizations have different views on what the role of CAIO actually entails. Recent designations show a variety of priorities when it comes to AI strategy: some give more weight to product innovation, others to compliance or even pure research.  While most CAIOs come directly from the tech-side of the suite, it’s not a must.

  • Accenture’s CAIO, Lan Guan, is characterized by the company as an executive which works to drive value, innovation and growth from AI. Previously, she was Data & AI chief for Accenture’s cloud services. 
  • Dr. Karandeep Singh, UC San Diego Health’s recently appointed CAIO, is a clinician with experience applying AI tech to improve patient experience. He was appointed to make clinical workflows more efficient while keeping the technology compliant and “accountable”.
  • Western University’s Mark Daley, the institution’s former Chief Digital Information Officer, was assigned to the role due to his expertise and research in the fields of AI and neural computation. He’s expected to incorporate AI to the company’s “ academic mission and research objectives.”
  • Marketing firm Claritas appointed Rex Briggs, a marketer with a tech edge, as their CIAO to achieve “business empowerment” through AI. Mr. Briggs was selected to work closely with clients on how to implement the technology in their organizations and to develop use cases for AI within Claritas.

Washington’s view: The White House’s memo states that the Chief AI Officer’s primary role “must be coordination, innovation and risk management for their agency’s use of AI.”

  • Among other responsibilities, CAIOs in government agencies are expected to be AI advisors to agency heads, build a “use case inventory” for the technology, advocate for its use within the agency and be a risk manager. This last section is the most comprehensive among the role’s responsibilities.
  • The White House gave federal agencies the option of appointing CTOs, CDOs or “similar officials with relevant or complementary authorities and responsibilities” to the role, as long as they have enough AI expertise. 
  • As of early January 2024, about half of federal agencies covered by the White House’s memorandum had appointed a CAIO. Most of the appointees were former CDOs, CTOs or cybersecurity officials within their respective agencies.

Insider perspectives: Industry insiders seem to agree that there’s a high level of fluidity in the role at the moment. “Chief AI Officer” remains, more than a distinct job label, a catch-all term for executives who help organizations figure out what they want to do with AI and how.  

  • “We see CAIOs being helpful for companies initially to make order of the chaos of new technology available,” commented Parker Gilbert, Co-Founder and CEO of automated accounting app Numeric. “Credentials are largely baseline familiarity with AI models, previous IT or tech transformation experience and strong stakeholder engagement chops.”
  • When hunting for CAIO candidates, organizations are aiming for “technologists” with an employee focus, said Arti Raman. This means executives who have a good business and operations sense, with security and privacy knowledge and who can upskill workforces. The profile is usually covered by CTOs and CSOs, but it’s not uncommon for people from legal, like general counsels, to be appointed, she added. 
  • “A CAIO should have a solid technical background in computer science, data analytics, and machine learning and experience leading teams and managing complex projects,” commented Finn Wheatley, Executive Consultant for Data & Analytics at Daybrook Consulting. “Additionally, possessing a business-oriented mindset, excellent communication skills and a keen interest in staying abreast of emerging technologies.”

Counterpoint: A recent Foundry study points to tepidness among business organizations over the CAIO role.  Only 21% of the executives surveyed said that they seek to establish the CAIO position. Percentages were higher in healthcare (35%) and education (33%). 15% of the enterprises surveyed by Foundry said they had a CAIO, with 24% stating they were seeking for one. 

  • “There are some technology firms where having this position [CAIO] does make sense, but for most organizations it should be viewed as more of a role than it is a title,” said Brian Jackson, Principal Research Director at Info-Tech. “For some organizations, the title of ‘Chief Data Officer’ or ‘Chief Digital Officer’ may be the position that takes on this role, but in many other scenarios, AI accountabilities should be assumed by various business leads.”
  • “In some cases, a single, appointed executive CAIO can effectively lead AI strategy, ensuring a unified vision and streamlined decision-making,” said OpenAngel Founder Jason Hung. “But for larger or more complex organizations, a group of executives might be better, bringing diverse perspectives and expertise. This group could include roles like CTO, CIO and others relevant to the company’s specific needs.”

NSAM’s Take: So, what are CAIOs and what do they do? In short: they’re an offshoot of the CIO/CTO position with a single focus: how to make AI work for their organization. At least that’s the case for now.

Leadership in business, academia, politics and beyond has yet to completely figure out AI. The CAIO office seems to have been created to facilitate that process of exploration. Organizations are in need of relevant and accurate data about how the technology is improving its operations, creating value for customers, catalyzing innovation and identifying potential compliance pitfalls.  

Labels are useful in business, but it’s not uncommon for roles, particularly at the C-suite level, to lose meaning. There’s definitely market appetite for AI leadership, but organizations run the risk of assigning responsibilities to the CAIO role which are neither appropriate for the person designated nor relevant to their operational goals.

Even though CAIOs are the hot new thing in business, Foundry’s study and some of the comments received by NSAM show that companies remain in doubt about the necessity of a dedicated AI C-executive. Smaller organizations seem to be particularly cautious, opting for the combined expertise of their own data officers, tech leads and legal counsels.

That last part poses the possibility of a collective approach to AI leadership. In a recent thought piece, the Boston Consulting Group suggested that “every C-suite member Is now a Chief AI Officer,” meaning that AI strategy is being handled by all of an organization’s top executives instead of a single, specially appointed one.

Sign up for our Nearshore Americas newsletter:

One has to wonder also about the shelf-life of the CAIO position. Once AI is better understood and incorporated into organizations of all sorts, AI leadership might move away from the C-suite, going back to director or chief roles which report directly to a CIO, CTO or CDO. 

Cesar Cantu

Cesar is the Managing Editor of Nearshore Americas. He's a journalist based in Mexico City, with experience covering foreign trade policy, agribusiness and the food industry in Mexico and Latin America.

Add comment