Jack Ma: World leaders must make 'hard choices' or the next 30 years will be painful

Key Points
  • Jack Ma tells CNBC the dominance of giant companies is on the decline, as more small businesses get exposure with the internet.
  • Ma says more "made in America" goods could be the perfect products to sell to China's swelling middle class.
  • He warns that artificial intelligence could set off World War III, but humans will win.
Alibaba founder Jack Ma: In 30 years, people will only work 4 hours a day
Alibaba founder Jack Ma: In 30 years, people will only work 4 hours a day

Alibaba founder Jack Ma spent 800 hours traveling around the world last year and plans to increase that to 1,000 in 2017, evangelizing his burgeoning e-commerce platform, globalization and artificial intelligence.

The billionaire Chinese businessman sat down with CNBC this week at the Gateway '17 conference in Detroit for a wide-ranging interview on those topics and others. Here are the highlights:

Shrinking giants

The world's biggest public companies — like Apple, Alphabet and Amazon — have become so dominant that some critics have said they border on monopolies.

But Ma said the power of the giant company is on the decline as more small businesses get exposure with the internet.

"Large scale was the model," Ma said. "Personalized, custom-made is the future."

In a meeting with then President-elect Donald Trump in January, Ma said Alibaba plans to support 1 million American jobs over the next five years, mostly by facilitating sales from small businesses.

"The way to figure out the job creation, one of the best ways, is to help small business to sell their local products across the board," Ma said. "And we have to prepare now. Because the next 30 years is going to be painful."

Trade and globalization

Alibaba's Jack Ma: Globalization is good but needs to be improved
Alibaba's Jack Ma: Globalization is good but needs to be improved

The clash of economic and political systems has caused tension between the U.S. and China.

"We can no longer have massive trade deficits and job losses," Trump tweeted ahead of his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping this year. "American companies must be prepared to look at other alternatives."

But Ma told CNBC he believes that more "made-in-America" goods — a priority during Trump's campaign— could be perfect for China's swelling middle class. Ma pointed to a sale over the weekend when Alibaba sold 2 million American-made tubes of lipstick within 15 minutes.

Artificial intelligence

Ma said the emerging opportunities — and risks — from artificial intelligence and globalization are two of the topics that keep him on the road.

"This is why I'm traveling, talking to all the government and state leaders and telling them move fast. If they do not move fast, there's going to be trouble," Ma said. "So when we see something is coming, we have to prepare now. My belief is that you have to repair the roof while it is still functioning."

There could be benefits from artificial intelligence, Ma said, as people are freed to work less and travel more.

"I think in the next 30 years, people only work four hours a day and maybe four days a week," Ma said. "My grandfather worked 16 hours a day in the farmland and [thought he was] very busy. We work eight hours, five days a week and think we are very busy."

He added that if people today are able to visit 30 places, in three decades it will be 300 places.

Still, Ma said the rich and poor — the workers and the bosses — will be increasingly defined by data and automation unless governments show more willingness to make "hard choices."

"The first technology revolution caused World War I," he said. "The second technology revolution caused World War II. This is the third technology revolution."

With machine learning and artificial intelligence eliminating jobs, "the third technology revolution may cause the Third World War," he said.

Ma, a teacher by training, also said world leaders should pay attention to the education system to avoid the pain that could come with automation.

"I don't think we should make machines like humans," Ma said. "We should make sure the machine can do things that human beings cannot do."

Ma said machines will never get the wisdom and experience that comes with being human.

"Humans will win," he said.

— Reporting by CNBC's David Faber

WATCH: The full CNBC interview with Alibaba founder Jack Ma

Jack Ma: Small business should be globalization driver
Jack Ma: Small business should be globalization driver