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Think twice before you hire a chief AI officer

Clint Boulton | March 7, 2017
Is it time for companies to install a chief artificial intelligence officer to manage machine learning, natural language processing and associated efforts?

In search of revenue growth, Google, Facebook, Baidu and have loaded up on engineers, mostly university faculty and researchers capable of implementing AI for image recognition, conversational computing and other areas.

Internet companies bleed AI talent dry

Google in November hired the director of Stanford University's artificial intelligence lab to lead a new AI unit. Facebook plucked Yann LeCun from New York University. Carnegie Mellon University's Alex Smola moved to Amazon. Ng himself joined Baidu from Stanford. Draining universities of the teachers best qualified to raise the next generation of AI experts will widen an already dire talent gap.

The irony of Ng, speaking from a company that has lured more than 1,300 AI specialists, that a chief AI officer is best-positioned to customize AI for real business context wasn't lost on the CIO audience.

"For an average Fortune 500 company it is absolutely not a good idea to have a C-suite person [leading an AI unit," says Khalid Kark, Deloitte's U.S. CIO program research leader, who attended the event.

Kark said it would be better for business lines to find ways to leverage AI to solve pressing business challenges, rather than building a separate organization and hoping to stock it with staff. "The real value of AI is going to be solving business problems and the need has to grow organically from there to be able to drive any benefits," Kark says.

Assuming a company could even hire enough people to staff a dedicated AI unit, such an entity also runs the risk of becoming a siloed organization that fosters resentment from other units. One manufacturing company Kark worked with created a digital unit comprising 1,200 workers, only to roll it back after it failed. "Every time we have a hard problem we can't have C-suite executive trying to solve it for us, Kark said. "It creates a silo and an organization that can be viewed on a pedestal."


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