12-hour work week could be norm when AI benefits kick in: Jack Ma

SHANGHAI • Billionaire Jack Ma, long an outspoken advocate for China's extreme work culture, says that people should be able to work just 12 hours a week with the benefits of artificial intelligence (AI).

People could work as little as four hours a day, three days a week, with the help of technology advances and a reform in education systems, the Alibaba Group Holding co-founder said at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai yesterday.

On stage with him was Mr Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla, who is building manufacturing facilities in the Chinese financial hub.

Mr Ma cited electricity as an example of how developments in technology can free up time for leisure.

"The power of electricity is that we make people more time so that you can go to karaoke or (a) dancing party in the evening. I think because of artificial intelligence, people will have more time enjoying being human beings."

Mr Ma added: "For the next 10, 20 years, every human being, country, government should focus on reforming the education system, making sure our kids can find a job, a job that only requires three days a week, four hours a day. If we don't change the education system we are in, we will all be in trouble."

Just this year, Mr Ma endorsed the Chinese tech sector's infamous long working hours, so common it earned the moniker 996, meaning 9am to 9pm, six days a week. In one blog post, China's richest man dismissed people who expect a typical eight-hour office lifestyle, defying a growing popular backlash.

"I don't worry about jobs," Mr Ma said yesterday, making an optimistic case that AI will help humans rather than just eliminate their work. "Computers only have chips, men have the heart. It's the heart where the wisdom comes from."

Mr Ma also said the education system was outdated - modelled for the industrial period - and he foresees a day when machines can outsmart humans in areas of memory and repetitive skills. He said future education systems need to help people become more creative.

Mr Musk agreed with Mr Ma, not forgetting to tout his Neuralink project that is trying to merge the human brain with AI.

"The way education works right now, it's really low bandwidth, it's extremely slow, lectures are the worst," said Mr Musk. "Down the road with Neuralink you can just upload any subject instantly, it will be like The Matrix."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 30, 2019, with the headline '12-hour work week could be norm when AI benefits kick in: Jack Ma'. Print Edition | Subscribe