Power Players

Jack Ma: A.I. could give us 12-hour work weeks

Elon Musk (R) and Jack Ma speak onstage during the the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in China on August 29, 2019.
Hector Retamal | AFP | Getty Images

Billionaire Jack Ma, who stirred controversy when he made comments supporting 12-hour work days, now says with the advent of advanced technology and artificial intelligence, people should work 12-hour work weeks.

"I think people should work three days a week, four hours a day," Ma, the founder of Alibaba, said at the annual World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai Thursday.

"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," he said. "The jobs we need are [ones to] make people happier ... people experience life, enjoy [being] human beings."

While on stage with Tesla CEO Elon Musk, Ma used the examples of the Industrial Revolution and electricity to illustrate how advancements in technology created better work-life balance. "The power of electricity is that we make people more time, so you can go to the karaoke in the evening, you can go to dancing parties in the evening," he said.

People should work three days a week, four hours a day: Jack Ma
People should work three days a week, four hours a day: Jack Ma

Ma is not the only tech billionaire to predict that AI will result in fewer hours spent working. Microsoft founder Bill Gates told Fox Business at the World Economic Forum in 2018 that machine learning will allow humans to be more productive.

So "certainly we can look forward to the idea that vacations will be longer at some point," Gates said. "The purpose of humanity is not just to sit behind a counter and sell things. More free time is not a terrible thing."

Ma's talk in Shanghai was in contrast to comments he made in April that were posted on Alibaba's WeChat account. Amid a debate about Chinese tech's culture of working long hours, Ma called the practice a "huge blessing." He was specifically referring to the "996" work schedule — working 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week — which is common in China's tech industry.

"Let me ask everyone, if you don't put out more time and energy than others, how can you achieve the success you want?" Ma said. "Compared to them, up to this day, I still feel lucky, I don't regret (working 12 hour days), I would never change this part of me."

As The Washington Post points out, because Ma seemed to make this turnaround, some have been speculating on Weibo (a Chinese messaging service that is like Twitter) that Ma was pandering to an American audience.

"Previously he [Ma] talked in Chinese about 996. That's for us. This time, he said 'three days a week, four hours a day' in English. That's for foreigners," one user said. "Ma has said previously that 996 was a blessing. How can he say now that people can work three days a week, four hours a day, and go to karaoke or dance parties in the evening?"

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