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

Billionaire Jack Ma cited electricity as an example of how developments in technology can free up time for leisure.
Billionaire Jack Ma cited electricity as an example of how developments in technology can free up time for leisure.PHOTO: AFP

SHANGHAI (BLOOMBERG, AFP) - 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.

People could work as little as three days a week, four hours a day with the help of technology advances and a reform in education systems, the Alibaba Group co-founder said at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai on Thursday (Aug 29).

He spoke on stage with Elon Musk, the chief executive officer of Tesla who is building manufacturing facilities in the city.

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 dancing party in the evening. I think because of artificial intelligence, people will have more time enjoying being human beings."

"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," Ma said.

"If we don't change the education system we are in, we will all be in trouble."

Just this year, Ma endorsed the China tech sector's infamous 12-hours-a-day, six-days-a-week routine, so common it earned the moniker 996. In one blog post, China's richest man this year dismissed people who expect a typical eight-hour office lifestyle, defying a growing popular backlash.

"I don't worry about jobs," Ma said on Thursday, 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."

While insisting that he is “not a tech guy,” the e-commerce mogul added: “I think AI can help us understand humans better. I don’t think it’s a threat.” 

But Musk countered: “I don’t know man, that’s like, famous last words.” He said the “rate of advancement of computers in general is insane”, sketching out a vision in which super-fast, artificially intelligent devices eventually tire of dealing with dumb, slow humans. 

“The computer will just get impatient if nothing else. It will be like talking to a tree,” Musk said.


Ma said the current 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.

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

 “Right now we are already a cyborg because we are so well-integrated with our phones and our computers,” said Musk. “The phone is like an extension of yourself. If you forget your phone, its like a missing limb.” 

Neuralink aims to develop implantable brain-machine interface devices, which conjures images of The Matrix, whose characters download software to their brains that instantly turns them into martial arts masters. 

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