Reform education so we can work alongside machines, says Alibaba founder

Jack Ma, founder and executive chairman of Alibaba, gave a speech this weekend about how he believes technology will shape the future of society. While he described the disruption that automation is likely to bring, he also said that new technology could help us live better lives.

“In the coming 30 years, the world’s pain will be much greater than its happiness,” Mr Ma said, speaking in Mandarin at a China Entrepreneur Club event. AI, robotics and other emerging technologies will lead to major job losses and social conflict, he warned.

Mr Ma set up his first website in 1995, and in 1999 founded Alibaba.com with colleagues.  Today Alibaba is worth ¥100 billion, and this year Mr Ma was ranked second on Fortune magazine's list of the World’s 50 greatest leaders.

Around 15 years ago, Mr Ma said, he gave hundreds of speeches warning of the impact of the internet on traditional business, but his message did not spread far. Any business without an online presence, he said, could suffer in the future.

He said that emerging technologies such as AI could lead to millions of new jobs being created, but to take advantage of this, education systems must be reformed to equip people for these jobs. Young people should be taught curiosity and creativity, he said, as robots will outperform humans in other areas.

“30 years later, the cover of Time magazine for the CEO of the year will very likely be a robot,” he said. “It remembers better than you, it counts faster than you, and it won’t be angry with competitors.”

AI will be needed to process the enormous amounts of data being generated today, something that the human brain is not capable of, he said. The technology sector, he continued, must focus on teaching machines to do what humans are incapable of, rather than replacing human workers. This would make a machine a “human partner” rather than a rival.

As more work becomes automated, Mr Ma said, our work week will be shortened and we will need to rethink how we live our lives; they could become longer and more fulfilling.

In a letter sent to Alibaba shareholders last October, Mr Ma described his predictions for how industry will be disrupted and transformed by emerging technologies. As Alibaba expands beyond e-commerce, the company has invested in AI and cloud computing.

Mr Ma joins fellow billionaire tech entrepreneur Elon Musk in airing his opinions about how AI could transform our future. In October 2014, Mr Musk said that we risk “summoning a demon”; that AI was the “biggest existential threat” to humans and we must harness its powers for good.

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