Human CEOs Could be out of the Job by 2047, Says Jack Ma

Executive chairman of Alibaba Jack Ma meets with President Trump

CEOs struggling to perfect succession planning in the digital age may soon have little cause for concern, though the same couldn’t be said for their prodigies.

Apparently, robots could be heading up companies in 30 years’ time, Jack Ma, founder and executive chairman of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba, told a gathering in China recently.

“The Time magazine cover for the best CEO of the year very likely will be a robot. It remembers better than you, it counts faster than you and it won’t be angry with competitors,” Ma said.

Whether Ma was 100% serious or just trying to be provocative isn’t entirely clear, though he did remind the audience that people who doubted his predictions 15 years ago that the Internet would upend the retail sector ended up with egg on their faces.

“MACHINES SHOULD ONLY DO WHAT HUMANS CANNOT. THIS WAY WE HAVE OPPORTUNITIES TO KEEP MACHINES AS WORKING PARTNERS WITH HUMANS, RATHER THAN REPLACEMENTS.”

Many business leaders, including Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff, have noted startling advances in artificial intelligence technology in the past year alone. And Ma isn’t the first person to predict that machines will make good managers. Ray Dalio, the billionaire founder of  Bridgewater Associates, is reportedly already developing software that will automate much of the day-to-day management of the hedge fund firm.

At least some of the stuff that CEOs do each day could be handled by current technologies, if they were applied right, according to a report released in November by McKinsey. More precisely, the management consultancy pegged the proportion of robot-adoptable CEO tasks at 20%.

These include, it said, analyzing reports and data to informing operational decisions, preparing staff assignments and reviewing status reports.

But that leaves a whole heap of other requirements that machines simply can’t handle yet, including so-called soft skills, such as communication and providing inspiration.

“Ultimately, it’s not going to be about human versus machine,” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella wrote last year in a piece for Slate. “We humans have creativity, empathy, emotion, physicality and insight that can be mixed with powerful AI computation—the ability to reason over large amounts of data and to pattern recognition more quickly—to help move society forward.”

Alibaba’s Ma at least agrees that humans and machines can work together for the common good, though he predicts a tough adjustment period will come first.

“In the next 30 years, the world will see much more pain than happiness,” Ma said. “Machines should only do what humans cannot. 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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Ross Kelly
Ross Kelly is a London-based business journalist. He has been a staff correspondent or editor at The Wall Street Journal, Yahoo Finance and the Australian Associated Press.

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