The Analects of Jack Ma

M.E. Strickland

“Honestly, we never talk about AI in the company; I hate people talking about AI,” Jack Ma said recently at Alibaba’s Investor Day conference. It’s a peculiar statement coming from the man behind what is one of China’s largest internet companies. “It sounds like if you do not talk about AI you are in trouble,” he complained. Yet just a few days before this, Ma had spoken at the Big Data Expo in southwest China: “AI is something I’m very concerned with,” he said at the time, before going on at length about the bountiful prospects of machine intelligence for the future of business.

Clearly, Ma’s views on AI involve a little complexity.

Jack Ma, although never shy of the media, has been especially talkative of late, making a number of public appearances, including a visit to Detroit this week to promote US-China business. And in this succession of headline talks and interviews before the press, he has held forth on no less than the future of artificial intelligence, automation, the transformation of labor and consumption, a new phase of the world economy, and how he expects his company will steer through and even lead those changes. It’s a lot to take in.

Making sense of it, however, is necessary. Alibaba is neck and neck with Tencent for claiming the title of largest private company in China, and as such is also one of the largest companies in the world. It’s gross merchandise volume—the measure of goods sold through its ecommerce platforms—in the year to date is reportedly $550 billion, and shows every sign of continuing to grow. Between its three ecommerce platforms (each covering a different dimension of business and consumer sales), and its subsidiaries in logistics, cloud services, and payments, it has extraordinary sway in China’s retail economy, and it has already begun expansion into a number of other emerging markets around Asia and Latin America. Whatever Alibaba’s plans for the future, therefore, they are likely to have quite an impact.

During the investment conference, Alibaba executives regaled the audience with predictions for 45-49% revenue growth and a 13% increase in stock prices in the next year. High goals, to be sure, but not implausible. Alibaba has seen stellar growth of late, its market valuation outstripping Tencent (who briefly ranked as the largest private company in East Asia this year), in turn carrying Ma’s personal worth up $2.8 billion in a single day.

Jack Ma, however, was still very much himself, and rather than bearing down into financial data or business strategy, he opened with a soaring discussion of Alibaba’s future over the next five, ten, and even 84 years (Ma’s goal is for the company to make it to at least 2101, so that, as it was founded in 1999, it will have crossed at least three centuries).

Ever the one for grand visions, Ma anticipates that in twenty years time the company will be serving two billion consumers around the world (affirming, if there were ever any doubt, that the company has plans for far-reaching expansion beyond China), creating 100 million jobs and supporting 10 million businesses both large and small as a platform for international commerce. Such numbers would, in Ma’s own calculation, make the company the fifth largest “economy” in the world. While in Detroit this week, he reiterated these numbers. Bold as they might seem, it appears Alibaba is serious about reaching for them.

But part and parcel of those projections is Ma’s vision for the future of AI and business. Ma’s protests to the contrary aside, Alibaba is clearly thinking about AI every bit as much as other major tech companies. But there is nuance to Ma’s take on what role AI is likely to play.

“I don’t think Chinese companies should try to do things like AlphaGo. It doesn’t have much significance,” Ma said at the Big Data Expo. “We can’t outrun a train, or a plane. After the first computer was invented, we should have had a premonition … We can’t surpass machines.” His expectation, it seems, boils down to one of utility: AI deployed for practical purposes. “Machines have to do the things that humans can’t.” Rather than obsessing over whether or not an algorithm can master a game, Ma suggested that the more meaningful measure of AI over the longterm would be to compare its impact against that of the advent of electricity; in other words, as a foundational technology from which others would grow.

Like many others, Ma seems to believe that AI will constitute a genuine revolution—or at least part of one. In a way not made fully clear, he seems to see AI as one element alongside big data, the Internet of Things, and automation generally in redefining both production and retail. “The impact on traditional manufacturing will be huge, so we have to prepare.” While in Detroit, he argued that over the next thirty years, “pure internet companies” of Google’s sort will not be the ones to come out on top, but rather those that use the internet as a basis for reworking the nature of business. “The world is shifting from standardization to personalization,” a turn that small businesses would be better placed to take advantage of than large ones. (The point should not be missed that Alibaba, mainly dealing in ecommerce, isn’t meant to be counted among the “pure internet companies,” while it also serves as a sales platform for millions of smaller businesses.)

While avowedly optimistic about technology, Ma does nonetheless have concerns about the very same ill-defined, technical-industrial-commercial revolution that he and his company are expecting to take advantage of. Twice, in both the Big Data Expo and in his talks in Detroit, Ma has warned of dangers and conflicts arising from technological revolutions. “It’s gonna be tough if we do not fight against the same enemy,” he said, naming poverty, disease, and environmental issues as targets on which to focus. In any case, he asserted, no one can stop the joint forward march of big data and globalization, any more than they could stop the advance of electricity or the internet.

Jack Ma’s sprawling commentary on the future of technology, business, and Alibaba, offers more breadth than depth, and many details remain wanting. How exactly all of this coheres, how he intends for Alibaba to cope with rising machine intelligence, and what form the company’s own AI efforts will take, is all still unclear. But those are questions that will perhaps only be answered as Alibaba’s plans unfold. What has emerged from Ma’s recent appearances and talks, however, is a particular vision of the future, one in which AI will be as creative as it is destructive, technologies emerging on the back of big data and IoT will lend the advantage to small businesses, and the globalization of trade will continue apace. None of that is in fact guaranteed, of course. But that is the future Ma and Alibaba seem to be betting on.