Quantum machine learning analyst. AI-assisted healthcare physician. Personal memory curator. Those are a few of the possible job positions Texas Christian University instructor and entrepreneur in residence Michael Sherrod envisions when he thinks about the future of work. 

In the latest installment of our occasional conversations with Fort Worth newsmakers, Sherrod discusses what the future of work might look like, what technologies are emerging, and why it’s important for entrepreneurs to consider how technology will affect their industries. 

Sherrod was the first publisher of the Texas Tribune and the president of content integration and community at AOL. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. The conversation starts with Sherrod naming some titles of jobs that don’t exist yet – but might in the future. 

Michael Sherrod: Personal memory curator, an ethical sourcing manager, fitness commitment counselor, quantum machine learning analyst, personal data broker, genomic portfolio director, financial wellness coach, data detective, cyber city analyst, genetic diversity officer, and how about an AI-assisted health care technician.

Seth Bodine: And so these are all just job titles that you sort of thought about?

Sherrod: I think they are absolutely going to be job titles in the not too distant future because the work that we do with machines already is increasing at almost an exponential rate. We interface with machines all day long. We’re interfacing with them right now with your recorder and your headphones and microphone and our iPhones and our computers. And the depth of those interactions is just going to increase as we begin to use data more, as we begin to use AI more. And we already use it to some extent. When you order from Amazon, you’re using AI. When you’re making a phone call on your phone, you’re using AI to an extent. So it’s already everywhere around us. But we haven’t developed enough depth yet to create these new jobs.

Bodine: AI – is that one of the biggest predictions you have?

Sherrod: Well, I think there are three technologies that are going to be most important overall. AI and machine learning are top of the list, then you have genomic research and advances where I think that’s going to have an enormous impact on healthcare. I think we’re going to go from a sickness model to a health model. Because as we are able to do more personalized medicine, more and more of that will be preventative medicine rather than fixing, you know, an illness or disease medicine. 

And the third one is nanotechnology, that’s going to infiltrate everything. In terms of medicines, we’re already getting delivery mechanisms where there are little nanomachines in it to direct it directly to a tumor. You’re seeing all kinds of nanomachines being developed to go into your blood vessels. And beyond healthcare, nanotechnology has been put to work in just about every industry you can imagine.

Bodine: How often are you – as an entrepreneur and someone who teaches entrepreneurship and innovation at TCU, thinking about the future of work? And how soon might some of these imaginary titles become a reality?

Sherrod: Every day. For instance, the title, augmented reality journey builder, that’s not very far away when you think about how many people are distributed now, and on a team inside a company. So let’s say you have a world-spanning company, and you’re on a team of people who are spread all across the globe. Well, the best way to have a team meeting is to put on a headset, and everyone meet in the office that you have created around that. So that could be a beach, it could be an office building, it could be an airplane. It could be anything, because you’ve built it. 

So you build this place where your teammates, and the team can see all of their stats up here on the righthand side, just like in a video game. And they can see how well they’re doing against other teams in the company, they can see how well they’re doing in terms of revenue and versus cost. They can see how they’re doing against their competition. And they’ll work together in that virtual space just like you would in a meeting and then everyone will be able to go their own way. 

And there are already technologies that connect people who are remote, whether they’re at home or in an office in a remote location, where you can see everyone and you can go over and talk to them at their desk just like you would if you were in the real world. So those technologies are going to enable even more remote work and remote teams. Geography is going to matter less and less. I mean, think about it. Companies have always been constrained and hiring people based on their geography. If they were in Dallas-Fort Worth, they pretty much hired around Dallas-Fort Worth. They’re in New York, they pretty much hired people around New York. These days, you can get talent from anywhere in the world and bring them to work in your company. It’s pretty extraordinary actually.

Bodine: In terms of innovation and new innovations that are actually creating new jobs, what industries in Fort Worth are you seeing the most potential?

Sherrod: Well, you know, the great thing about Fort Worth, and the reason I live in Fort Worth, is because I believe it has the most diversified economy in the state of Texas, of any big city in the state of Texas. 

The others are catching up. But Fort Worth has had a diversified economy for a long time. And I believe that the areas where we’re seeing a lot of growth, and we’ll continue to continue to see a lot of growth. One is health care. The health care district is just going to get bigger than new medical schools being built out there. More and more money is going to be going into that, especially since all of the big tech companies are now investing very heavily in health care.

And that money is going to grow the industry in different ways. And it’s going to push it into new areas like more health care, rather than illness care. So I think that’s a huge area of growth. Pharmaceuticals, as a subset of that is another huge area, where I think more and more interesting things are happening. Fort Worth had a huge pharma company that grew up here, ZSPharma. And the CEO insisted they stay in the area. So I think they’re up in Carrollton now, where they built their new plant there. We have a couple of other pharma companies here. 

So I think pharma is an area, but when you really get down to it, anything in the biotech arena, I think, is a huge opportunity for Fort Worth, I think we already have a lot going on there. There’s some venture capitalists who are focused in that area and are funding companies. And I think that’s an area where Fort Worth can really bring together some interesting nexus of companies and really grow some interesting new technologies out of that.

Bodine: Are there any limitations that you are observing as industries, particularly in Fort Worth, try to innovate?

Sherrod: I think the biggest limitation is people’s understanding of what is actually possible. A lot of people are still linear in their thinking. And we have exponential technologies, everywhere. Technologies that are growing at an exponential rate in their abilities and their memory and their capabilities and their bandwidth. You name it. 

But people are linear. Technologies are exponential, people are linear. And so, as a result, you have this big gap. So you see this big hockey stick of growth with linear – I mean, with exponential technology. And you see this sort of flat line that grows a little bit over time, which is our linear growth. There’s a delta in there, you know, it looks like this. There’s a huge amount of opportunity in there for human beings to become more exponential in the way they think about things to have a growth mindset. That’s what a growth mindset is all about. I think that’s the single biggest limitation in Fort Worth, Texas, is not enough people yet understand, or are willing to take advantage of the exponential capabilities of their technology, because it’s really hard to get your mind around what exponential means. So, for instance, let me give you an example. 

There’s a question you could ask: What’s the cheapest way to get to the moon?

You take Sunday New York Times, and you fold it 45 times, and you’ll be at the moon. Because what happens is, when you fold it once doesn’t look like much. You fold it again, it doesn’t look like much folded again. But when you get up to like number 37, it begins to be huge. In the last couple of folds you get more than a third of the way to the moon. So that’s how exponential works, it doesn’t look like it’s doing much at first. And the classic example is putting a penny on the first square of a checkerboard and doubling it every square, by the time you’re done, you get like a trillion dollars is something, it’s extraordinary. 

So exponentiality is really hard for humans to understand. And so as a result, we tend not to use it to our advantage. And we tend not to think about how we can make that happen in our businesses. It’s not just Fort Worth, it’s all over the world that this is a problem. And it’s a problem in the way we design our companies. It’s a problem in the way we organize our companies. Because if you look at the way markets work, information, intelligence, innovation flow very freely through marketplaces. They’re not structured. 

But they’re all connected in lots of interesting ways. And then you look at the hierarchy of a normal corporation, and it’s very structured. And information does not flow freely, because it gets stopped on the way down, somebody will stop it because they want power. And they want to hold on to that and it gets stopped on the way up for the same reason. Same with innovation. Managers will say: ‘If you can’t tell me how this is going to make me a lot of money, I’m not going to do it and they stop.’ It never gets to the people who might say, ‘Oh, we need this new innovation.’ So hierarchies stop cold a lot of the mobility and the freedom of information, innovation and intelligence moving through the corporation. 

So in my view, companies need to become more like markets. They need to be more open with that and allow the free exchange of that so that they can react faster to changes in the marketplace. And I’ll tell you one of the biggest things that happens to companies is their legacy policies and procedures. So for instance, let’s take budgeting. 

Most companies have pretty strict budgeting guidelines about how they’re going to create their budget, and how it’s going to be spent. The problem with that is that when new opportunities show up, you can’t take advantage of it, because your budget doesn’t allow for it. 

So if you want to transform your company into a new age company that can take advantage of all these new technologies and new things that are happening, the first thing you have to do is go back to your legacy policies and procedures, and the way you handle things like HR, and budgeting and hiring, all of those things that are, we tend to think of as essential to the business, and we tend to be happy with the way they are, because we’re used to that. You need to completely rethink those things first, then you can begin your tour of what’s available if you transform your company. Because until you do that, you’re not really doing anything to change the mindset of your employees. Once they begin to see that the systems that they work with, and the policies and procedures that they’re used to are changing to create an environment where transformation can take place, they begin to think that, too, and it’s a safer way to do it. 

Because the first thing that an employee does, when a manager walks out and says, ‘We’re going to change things, we’re going to innovate,’ is they freeze up and they stop thinking, because they’re afraid they’re going to lose their job. Change means “I’m losing my job.” And when people freeze up like that, and stop thinking, they’re not capable of innovating around anything.

Bodine: I wanted to end this conversation on any other observations or trends that you’ve been seeing that you think are interesting?

Sherrod: Human beings are the most configurable of all assets. So you can train human beings to do what needs to be done. And you can train them to work with computers and machines. And the reason we need that is because machines are great. AI is great, but it’s limited. And they can only do certain things. So human beings can do the rest. I think we need to have a human-centered future rather than a machine-centered future. People need to be thinking about that. That’s a trend that I think is beginning to take hold. 

Another trend is in energy. Because there’s so much happening, anytime there’s a lot of chaos and turbulence in the marketplace – that’s when there’s real opportunity for entrepreneurs.

Bodine: With gas, you mean? 

Sherrod  

With gas, with oil, with coal, with alternative energy, all of that stuff is in a big mix. And it’s everyone’s trying to figure out what the best combination is, and how low the cost is going to go for all those things. That’s when there’s a lot of opportunity. 

Lifetime education and training is going to be huge. And it already is, but it’s going to get even more so because a person’s skill set in a corporation really is only viable for about three years. 

And then technology begins to overcome that, so they have to constantly be keeping up with that. New management – the sort of the new adaptive leadership management model that everyone’s talking about – that requires constant learning and learning new ways of managing. The old ego-driven CEO at the top isn’t working anymore. You need lots of collegial workers, you need managers who have high emotional intelligence, to understand that letting their employees solve the problem rather than them as a manager solving it. 

Giving people purpose, I think that’s a huge new movement in the workplace that is really taking hold.

Mental health is going to become a big part of the workplace much more so than it is now. You’re going to see the Metaverse. I don’t mean Facebook’s Meta. That’s nowhere right now. 

Gaming companies have been doing a Metaverse type thing for a long, long time. They’re way ahead of any of the other companies thinking about it. But the Metaverse is going to start becoming more and more part of companies, like the headset that I was talking about when we started talking. Those things are going to happen because they allow for all kinds of different uses. You could use that for education, you can use it for training, you could use it for team meetings, you can use it for productivity tools, you can use it for ecommerce, all of those things. 

So you’re going to see more and more of our digital world coming to be almost a physical thing in a way that we can access as a sort of another universe where we’ll have an office, we’ll have sports, we’ll have gaming, we’ll have e-commerce, we’ll have a digital agent that does a lot of that for us. You’re gonna see that beginning to happen. 

Bodine: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Sherrod: A lot of people ask me why I think about the future so much. And the reason is, because we’re creating the future right now. The things that we do, and the things that we think about and the things that we emphasize, are the things that are going to be creating the future. 

And we need to be really intentional and thoughtful about that. Because if we’re not careful, our technology is going to outstrip our ability to understand it. And I’ll give you an example. MIT did a study of worldwide companies. And they discovered that almost all of them have some sort of machine learning or AI capability or project that they already launched. But only 17% of their executives understand it. 

That means that those people are doing things and creating potential futures for us, and they don’t know what they’re doing. Those unintended consequences could be great, or they could be really bad. We need to be much more intentional and aware of what we’re doing when we create these exponential technologies, to make sure we don’t create for ourselves some unintended consequences.

Seth Bodine is a business and economic development reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at seth.bodine@fortworthreport.org and follow on Twitter at @sbodine120.

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Seth Bodine

Seth Bodine is the business reporter for the Fort Worth Report. He previously covered agriculture and rural issues in Oklahoma for the public radio station, KOSU, as a Report for America corps member....