Tuesday, 4 Aug 2020

Alibaba's Jack Ma and Softbank's Masayoshi Son see people at the heart in age of AI

TOKYO – People will be at the heart of the digital age of artificial intelligence, two of Asia’s top tech titans and investors said on Friday (Dec 6), as they urged a fundamental shift in how schools and workplaces are run to breed curious minds.

Alibaba’s Jack Ma and Softbank’s Masayoshi Son – two kindred spirits and friends who regularly debate and discuss philosophy – said innovation will be held at a greater premium in the future.

“People have to learn, and the best university is society. The best teachers are the mistakes,” said Mr Ma, 55, who retired in September as chief executive officer of the Chinese e-commerce giant to focus on philanthropy.

“We used to teach people to remember more, calculate faster, make them more knowledgeable,” he said. “But now we are making machines like people. So we have to change the way of education to make sure our kids are creative, constructive and innovative.”

Mr Son, 62, concurred, saying that concerns that artificial intelligence will cost jobs are overblown, noting that it would be similar to when Japan shifted away from an agrarian society with the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

He said: “New jobs will be created, and we will always find new exciting stuff to do.”

The duo were speaking at an hour-long dialogue session at the first Tokyo Forum, which is jointly organised by Japan’s University of Tokyo and South Korea’s Chey Institute for Advanced Studies.

Mr Son was arguably instrumental to Alibaba’s eventual explosive growth, having invested US$20 million (S$27.2 million) in the fledgling start-up in 2000.

He continues to be a pivotal player in the global start-up ecosystem through the US$100 billion Softbank Vision Fund, which has invested in companies like Singapore ride-sharing firm Grab, Hong Kong-based travel firm Klook and Indian hotel chain Oyo.

But Mr Son’s investment strategy has made headlines of late with the implosion of shared-office start-up WeWork, and write-downs in firms like Uber.

Mr Son said last month that he had misjudged WeWork co-founder Adam Neumann’s character, after faltering bets led to an operating loss of US$8.9 billion in the second quarter.

However, he said on Friday that he continues to prize his instinct-driven strategy, looking for the “passion, the gleam in the eye” over properly laid out business plans, as he had done with Alibaba.

“I always say that dogs and wolves look alike, but dogs can tell a wolf. I can smell (Mr Ma) – we are the same animal, we are both a little crazy,” Mr Son said.

Acknowledging his recent missteps, he stressed his singular vision on building a successor to the Vision Fund that can “invest in the same kind of scale (to find) young, crazy, passionate entrepreneurs and help them change the world”.

“In my view I have not achieved anything yet. I’m still a challenger,” he said. “Every day I’m still fighting, and my passion is more than hundred times bigger than what I am right now.”

Whether a start-up or a long-established firm, they saw similarities in how company leaders must lead the direction and invest heavily in their employees.

“The first and most important product of every company is your employee,” Mr Ma stressed. “If you cannot improve your employees, I don’t believe you can improve your service or your products.”

He added: “You have to encourage, enable, inspire them… Build up a great team, find the right people, enable them rather than discipline them. Only if you build a good culture can people feel comfortable to become better.”

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