Jack Ma, Alibaba Group Founder and Executive Chairman, launches a speech during the opening ceremony of Australian and New Zealand (ANZ) headquarters of Alibaba in Melbourne, Australia. Picture: Xinhua/Gui Qing
New York - Alibaba chairman Jack Ma said society should prepare for decades of pain as the internet disrupts the economy.

The world must change education systems and establish how to work with robots, to help soften the blow caused by automation and the internet economy, Ma said in a speech to an entrepreneurship conference in Zhengzhou, China, last Sunday.

“In the next 30 years, the world will see much more pain than happiness,” Ma said of job disruptions caused by the internet. “Social conflicts in the next three decades will have an impact on all sorts of industries and walks of life.”

It was an unusual speech for the Alibaba co-founder, who tends to embrace his role as a visionary and extol the promise of the future.

He explained that he had tried to warn people in the early days of e-commerce that it would disrupt traditional retailers and the like, but few listened. This time, he wants to warn against the impact of new technologies so that no one will be surprised.

“Fifteen years ago, I gave speeches 200 or 300 times reminding everyone the internet will impact all industries, but people didn’t listen, because I was a nobody,” he said.

Ma made the comments as Alibaba, China’s largest e-commerce operator, spends billions of dollars to move into new businesses, from film production and video streaming to finance and cloud computing.

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The Hangzhou-based company is looking to expand abroad since buying control of Lazada to establish a foothold in south-east Asia.

Ma was also critical of the traditional banking industry, saying that lending must be available to more members of society. The lack of a robust credit system drives up costs for everyone, he said.

Ma was at times brutal in his criticism of companies that won’t adapt. At one point, he said cloud computing and artificial intelligence are essential for business - and if leaders don’t get that, they should find young people in their companies to explain it to them. Another time, he called for traditional industries to stop complaining about the internet’s effects on the economy. He said Alibaba’s critics ignore that Taobao, its main online marketplace, has created millions of jobs.

Alibaba shares have outperformed this year on expectations that it can withstand efforts by rivals to capture digital ad spending and muscle in on its turf. The company is moving into untapped rural markets and investing in new sources of income.

He also warned that longer lifespans and better artificial intelligence were likely to lead to ageing labour forces and fewer jobs. “Machines should only do what humans cannot,” he said. “Only in this way can we have the opportunities to keep machines as working partners with humans, rather than as replacements.” 

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