Chief AI officer: What it takes to land the C-suite’s hottest new job

As countless organizations race to investigate or adopt artificial intelligence technologies, many are building out an AI skilled workforce. That includes the decision to appoint or hire a chief artificial intelligence officer (CAIO).

Indeed, new research from Foundry finds that 11% of midsize to large organizations have already designated such an individual in the role, and another 21% of organizations are actively seeking one.

Foundry / AI Priorities Study 2023

The ideal individual to assume this role should have much more than top technology and AI skills, says Colin Reeves, principal data and AI recruiter at ConSol Partners in Los Angeles. They should be a champion for smart AI adoption, and be able to recognize and balance AI benefits with risks. They should be able to work collaboratively with many departments in developing AI strategy and vision, and they should be able to design and target relevant business use cases, assess project outcomes, and measure ROI in each case.

Clear expectations are emerging on the top experiences, skills, and traits that a CAIO candidate should bring to the job, Reeves says. Assuming the candidate passes muster on those counts, the individual can expect very positive short- and long-term impacts on their careers by taking up this emerging IT leadership role, he says.

What is a chief AI officer?

A chief AI officer is a senior IT executive who is responsible for setting a company’s overall AI strategy, including the design, development, and implementation of artificial intelligence technologies. Peruse job advertisements for CAIOs, and one might conclude that the majority of these executives are needed at technology vendors. Many certainly are, but opportunities abound — and are increasing — at organizations of all types, Reeves notes. A typical candidate is someone who has a proven track record of leading successful AI programs, and a vision for transforming the organization with AI.

Candidates for the CAIO role are typically mandated to modernize processes with AI, ensuring that AI is used with ethics and governance in mind, and in building an AI-first culture, Reeves explains.

The CAIO role and responsibilities

Parminder Bhatia is a prime example of the CAIO today. As chief AI officer at GE HealthCare, Bhatia focuses on AI strategy and execution, which includes utilizing AI to help streamline radiology workflows, reduce scan times, automate measurement, and enhance diagnosis, among other activities.

Bhatia’s team is responsible for the AI center-led development of platform, reusable components, and capabilities, such as building large models and advanced visualization with business unit partnerships.

“We’re driven by a mission to revolutionize healthcare interfaces by integrating voice, text, and the latest in AI visualizations,” Bhatia says. “This approach isn’t just about technological novelty. It’s also about creating user-centric tools that aim to redefine how medical professionals interact with and leverage technology, improve their efficiencies, and ultimately improve patient experience and outcome.”

GE HealthCare recognizes the transformative potential of generative AI and large foundational models, and is taking active steps to harness their capabilities, Bhatia says. His previous tenure at Amazon equipped him with valuable insights and experience, as he spearheaded the company’s HealthAI initiative. This initiative saw the birth of trailblazing services such as Comprehend Medical, which he says stands out as a premier healthcare-specific natural language processing (NLP) tool on the cloud.

Ozzie Coto, chief AI officer and CTO at The Cult Branding Co., provides another model for the CAIO role evolving today. Coto co-founded the company, served as its initial chief technology officer, and was later tasked with overseeing AI investments as well.

Coto views his promotion to CAIO as the result of his extensive experience in key leadership positions in the past, and his deep understanding of AI and its potential impact on the business. His primary mission as CAIO is to align the company’s AI initiatives with its business goals, and to ensure that the company is leveraging AI in a way that is ethical and compliant with regulations.

“This includes shaping a future-centric AI vision, orchestrating collaboration between different departments, and demystifying AI for all stakeholders,” Coto explains. “Additionally, I am tasked with fostering a culture of curiosity and innovation, promoting responsible use of AI, and ensuring that our AI initiatives are resilient and adaptable to changing business environments.”

Where the CAIO fits in the C-suite

A chief AI officer is considered to be part of the C-suite executive team, whether they report to the CEO directly, or another top officer, Reeves says.

Parminder Bhatia reports to GE HealthCare CTO Dr. Taha Kass-Hout, and is part of the central Science & Technology Organization that works in partnership with the company’s business segments such as Imaging, Ultrasound, Patient Care Monitoring, and Pharmaceutical Diagnostics.

For the past three years, Bhatia was leading several foundation models and generative AI efforts at Amazon — technology platforms such as Amazon CodeWhisperer and Bedrock, where a lot of these foundation models act similarly to ChatGPT. But he wanted to have a more direct impact himself.  

“At GE HealthCare we get into the devices. You’re a lot closer, so the impact you can have is a lot larger,” Bhatia explains. “I’ve worked on healthcare in the past, but I think GE HealthCare provided the best opportunity to combine those together and have a real impact on the problems that we work on.”

Ozzie Coto reports directly to the CEO. His role is strategic and cross-functional, and he works closely with other key leaders in the organization to drive AI initiatives. The position enables him to have a significant impact on the strategic direction of the company, and he says it underscores the importance that the organization places on AI and its potential to drive business growth and innovation.

While Coto works closely with other leaders to align AI initiatives with the overall budget, he does have a certain degree of budgetary autonomy.

“I map out a data-driven roadmap that is based on Kurzweil’s predictions,” Coto explains. “This autonomy is crucial in allowing me to make strategic decisions about our AI investments and to ensure that we are allocating resources in a way that maximizes the return on our AI investments.”

Coto typically oversees AI-related initiatives and strategies within the units that his team serves. His team implements advanced initiatives in their own organization, and then rolls out pretested systems. 

Budgets and staffs the CAIO can expect

A CAIO may have full budget authority for internal AI investments and external partnerships, Reeves explains. Some will state that they go by the CEO/CFO-set budget, and still seek sign-off at the board level. Typically reporting to the CAIO are data scientists and engineers, ML engineers, AI product leads, and software engineers focused on leveraging AI algorithms.

Bhatia manages the central AI and ML organization at GE HealthCare, consisting of scientists, engineering, AI program and product teams. He works closely with colleagues across each segment and business.

GE HealthCare allocates more than $1 billion annually to R&D, Bhatia says. The company’s follows a hybrid approach to AI development and implementation, combining center-led development of platform, reusable components, and capabilities, such as advanced visualization, with business unit (BU) partnerships.

“Additionally, we utilize an internal process known as Worldwide Product Planning to ensure alignment across our company, guaranteeing that we meet the needs of both providers and patients,” Bhatia explains. “As part of central Science and Technology Organization, I am responsible for both horizontal capabilities to 10X accelerate the development of AI-enabled applications as well as vertical AI applications that are focused on business units.”

At Cult Branding, a cross-functional team of IT professionals, leading computer scientists, engineers, and data scientists report to Coto.

“Together, we work to implement and scale our AI projects. This team is critical to the success of our AI initiatives, and I am committed to fostering a collaborative and innovative environment that enables them to do their best work,” Coto says. “Additionally, we collaborate with various business units and departments to integrate AI into their processes. The reporting structure can differ from one organization to another.”

Coto believes he brings a strong technical understanding of AI, business acumen, leadership skills, communication skills, and ethical and legal knowledge to his role. These skills and traits enable him to effectively drive the organization’s AI initiatives, and to ensure that they are aligned with business goals and ethical standards.

“My ability to communicate complex AI concepts in a way that is understandable to all stakeholders is particularly important in ensuring the successful implementation of our AI initiatives,” Coto notes.

The benefits of the CAIO role — for the IT execs and organization as a whole

Success in the CAIO role can have significant short-term and long-term benefits, both for the individual and for their organization. In the short term, a successful CAIO will help enable AI adoption ad digital transformation, Reeves says. In the long term, it can help establish the individual and their organization as a world-class AI leader.

Both results apply at GE HealthCare. In short term, Bhatia says his role has provided great confidence in his abilities as both a technologist and a business strategist.

“I realized that I could do a lot of things that I didn’t think I could do prior to this,” Bhatia says. “I’ve gained a lot of confidence from this experience, and I feel now that I’ve done this, I can do almost anything.”

Long term, Bhatia says he would love to see his role make impact towards health-care equity. For example, one goal is to empower clinicians — including those without specialized ultrasound training — to conduct quick and accurate assessments, he explains. These tools will run on multiple ultrasound devices, expanding access to high-quality care worldwide, with a particular focus on low- and middle-income countries (LMICs).

“At GE HealthCare, our D-3 precision strategy focuses on integrating smarter devices, a disease-specific approach, and digital solutions to address workflow inefficiencies and enhance care quality,” Bhatia explains. “We aim to develop scalable technology that can tackle a wide range of diseases using digital prowess. Generative and foundational models are vital here, as they could allow us to quickly adapt to different diseases for screening, early detection, progression, and even pinpointing noninvasive biomarkers with minimal training.”

In the short term, Coto says his role as CAIO has enabled him to solidify his position as a leader in the tech industry. In the long term, he believes it will allow him to play a crucial role in shaping the future of AI and its impact on businesses and society.

“This role provides me with the opportunity to influence the direction of our company and the broader industry, and I am excited about the potential to drive significant change and innovation through AI,” Coto says.

Skills and traits of successful chief AI officers

As to others that might aspire to a CAIO role, Coto says a best fit would be someone with a strong technical understanding of AI, business acumen, leadership skills, communication skills, and ethical and legal knowledge. They should also be adaptable, forward-thinking, and passionate about leveraging AI to drive innovation and efficiency. This individual should also have a proven track record of leading successful AI initiatives and a deep understanding of the ethical and regulatory considerations associated with AI, he says.

Why you should consider hiring a CAIO

With 21% of companies looking to add a chief AI officer to their IT leadership team, it’s becoming clear that rising interest in AI is translating into a greater desire for leadership around the complexities of AI in the enterprise. And it’s all about keeping on top of this promising, disruptive technology as it evolves, Coto says.

“I see AI becoming increasingly integrated into all aspects of business operations. For organizations not currently using AI, this means they will need to adapt quickly or risk falling behind,” Coto stresses. “It’s not just about implementing AI, but doing so in a way that is ethical, compliant, and aligned with business goals. As AI continues to evolve, it will become an increasingly important driver of business growth and innovation. Organizations that fail to embrace AI risk being left behind by their competitors.”

Bhatia agrees: “For organizations not currently utilizing AI technologies — I say the time is to get started now. There are so many benefits that will be left on the table if you do not embrace this technology.”

These can start with small steps — such as embracing devices that utilize AI to addressing training and skill barriers to enable more employees to make the most of the technology, Bhatia says. Partnerships will also be key to advancing AI, so organizations should look to find a trusted partner that can help them along the way to make their AI journey as seamless as possible.

And for many organizations, that journey may best be undertaken with a CAIO at the helm, to ensure an effective and ethical AI strategy is in place and that it is executed to advance the organization’s mission.

Artificial Intelligence, Chief Data Officer, Generative AI, IT Leadership