Jack Ma: You’ll Thank A.I. for That Ultra-Short Workweek

Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma thinks that artificial intelligence (A.I.) will allow humans to work 12-hour workweeks.

Ma made that statement while sharing a stage with Tesla CEO Elon Musk at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai.  “I think people should work three days a week, four hours a day,” Ma said, adding: “I think that because of artificial intelligence, people will have more time to enjoy being human beings. I don’t think we’ll need a lot of jobs.” (Hat tip to The Washington Post for covering the event.)

Musk, who helped co-found OpenAI, a semi-non-profit dedicated to mitigating any existential risk from A.I., also offered that computers will surpass humans “in every single way” (per CNBC).

Ma’s statement about A.I. radically curbing the standard workweek is more than a little ironic, considering how he’s long been a supporter of the brutal “996” workweek, in which someone grinds away from 9 AM to 9 PM six days a week. He’s also framed workers who churn long hours as “blessed.” (Musk also likes to claim that he works more than three times the average workweek, thanks to managing Tesla and private-spaceflight firm SpaceX simultaneously.)

People have spent nearly the past century predicting that technology will someday kill the need to work “full time.” Way back in 1930, famed British economist John Maynard Keynes theorized that people would eventually work only 15 hours per week. As recently as last year, billionaire Richard Branson suggested that the three-day workweek was within reach. So this isn’t a new concept, to say the least, even long before Ma seemingly thought it was inevitable.

However, all the technological advancements and machine learning in the world won’t eliminate one key thing about humanity: we like to work. We might not like our current job, and we might bristle at some of the responsibilities shoved upon us on a day-to-day basis, but fundamentally we’re animals who like to do things. That’s why you see technologists worth millions (or even billions) still grinding away at their projects, when they could just as easily spend the rest of their lives on a beach somewhere, watching their company’s stock price fluctuate in-between sips of a tropical drink.

The bigger issue is A.I. and machine learning taking jobs away entirely. There’s every possibility that automation will reduce and even eliminate the need for humans to do certain tasks—programmers, datacenter administrators, help desk staff, and even data analysts could end up in a battle to the death with software that can replicate much of what they do. Even though many companies aren’t really spending all that much money on A.I. at this juncture, that could quickly change as these A.I. and machine learning tools become more sophisticated. 

It would be great if Ma’s optimistic prediction turns out right, and machines assist people to the point where they only have to work a few hours a week. But what do we do if automation begins wiping out whole industries, and the people who want (and need) to work can’t find jobs?

5 Responses to “Jack Ma: You’ll Thank A.I. for That Ultra-Short Workweek”

  1. this is all glossed over by the little disrupting guys I see on CNBC, Bloomberg etc “But what do we do if automation begins wiping out whole industries, and the people who want (and need) to work can’t find jobs? Your question is more research than anyone else has on the subject.

  2. This is an odd perspective from Ma, given his current “996” fanaticism. Not sure how he would go about transitioning to a 12 hour workweek. The reality is that corporations / the free market has shown an insatiable appetite for absorbing whatever productivity increases technology has provided without letting up on working hours for people. I don’t know why this should be any different ultimately. Although I think most would welcome a 12 hour workweek, or less, coupled with UBI. Hopefully Ma and “the promise of technology” to liberate us will finally deliver this time. Good luck to us all.

  3. Mir Nayeemuddin Khan

    I like Jack Ma’s optimism and practical views. It is however unwise to accept his prediction about 4 hours of work with a 3 day work week in the future. In the present, most of the population of the world works long hours, even seven days a week, with low pay, e.g. the billions of people living in the third world countries in Asia, Africa and even China.

    On the other hand Elon Musk appears fearful of the future that AI will wipe out jobs and computers will run the world.

    My view is that AI will lead to better and smarter products and automated control systems (e.g. manufacturing with increased robotics, computer automation and computer vision). In the future virtual (software) and real robots will provide many of the services that are now provided by humans, e.g. medical services like radiology, transportation services via automated vehicles (taxis, buses, trains, planes, etc.).

    In a way the future will not be very much different from the past. It will be an increasingly complex world where people will have less and less physical work (as it is today), but will have to work harder and harder mentally (as it is today) to continuously learn new skills to succeed.

  4. Yeah… right. I’ll believe that society will welcome the 12-hour work week when I see the cost of everyday goods falling to levels that make them affordable to those people working only 12 hours. Ma and his cohorts aren’t going to continue to pay salaries comparable to today’s when their employees are only working a day and a half per week. Oh… the prices will fall because the robots and the A.I. will allow them to be produced more cheaply? Uh huh.

    The rise of robotic workers and A.I. is just another scheme to reduce costs to corporations and foist those costs onto society. If people are not able to support themselves it won’t be the corporation’s fault. Nope. It’ll be the fault of the employees for not having the foresight and financial means to become robot technicians at night school. Government won’t do a darned thing about it for fear of endangering the flow of bribes^Wcampaign contributions from their corporate supporters.

  5. “We might not like our current job, and we might bristle at some of the responsibilities shoved upon us on a day-to-day basis, but fundamentally we’re animals who like to do things. That’s why you see technologists worth millions (or even billions) still grinding away at their projects, when they could just as easily spend the rest of their lives on a beach somewhere, watching their company’s stock price fluctuate in-between sips of a tropical drink.”

    Out of touch are we?

    How many of us are a.) worth millions and/or b.) own a publicly-traded company whose stock price we fret over?

    This guy’s spent way too much time in his executive suite on the top floor of his glass-and-chrome office building to understand what the vast majority of employees worry about daily.

    I think the person he most wants a 12-hour job for is himself.