Main image of article 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?