Jack Ma calls on leaders to embrace promises of artificial intelligence

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(Bloomberg) -- Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. Chairman Jack Ma, who wooed President Donald Trump earlier this year with a pledge to help create 1 million new U.S. jobs by 2021, said people should stop looking to manufacturing to drive economic growth.

While the rapid speed of technological change is understandably causing concern about the future, Ma called on leaders to embrace the promise of advances like artificial intelligence to span whole new industries.

“These worries are very normal -- two hundred years ago when the steam machine came, people started thinking the steam machine is going to take a lot of jobs,” Ma said, speaking at the Bloomberg Global Business Forum in New York. “Because of artificial intelligence, because of the robots, manufacturing is no longer the main engine for jobs.” Instead, small businesses using the internet to extend their markets will lead economic growth this century, Ma said.

The message ties neatly into Alibaba’s business plan, which hinges on making the Chinese company the go-to online marketplace for entrepreneurs. Ma’s million-job plan for the U.S. centers around helping small businesses navigate and sell into the Chinese market, where Alibaba says it has already contributed to the creation of 30 million jobs.

Ma also called out those who drum up fear about the prospect of artificial intelligence replacing humans and even eventually outsmarting and controlling their living creators.

“I don’t like the scientists, engineers and business leaders that scare people away about technology,” he said. “People are worried machines are going to control human beings. I think people should have confidence.”

Ma didn’t name him, but Elon Musk, the chief executive officer of Tesla Inc., said earlier this month that a race between competing nations for AI superiority would be the “most likely cause” of World War Three.

In an interview with Bloomberg TV’s Emily Chang after the speech, Ma weighed in on global politics as well. He said intermittent conflicts on trade between China and the U.S., as well as inflammatory comments from Trump towards China, are just par for the course in a relationship between global powers.

“The China-U.S. relationship is very critical in this century, and I think we are making progress on that,” Ma said.

--With assistance from Emily Chang

Bloomberg News