Digitization and globalization are scary and disruptive to some, but those who try to halt their progress will be left behind and miss out on the benefits they inevitably bring, Jack Ma said this week.
Speaking at a Hangzhou event to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the Luohan Academy, Ma—who also co-chairs a United Nations panel on digital cooperation—stressed that there’s no need for a headlong rush into the future without time to contemplate and address concerns about what a global digital economy will look like.
The Luohan Academy is an Alibaba-initiated open research initiative that invites social scientists, researchers, and technology experts to collaborate and come up with possible solutions for some of the world’s toughest and most divisive issues as a result of technological advancement.
“At Luohan Academy, we will continue to support exchanges between governments, academia, and the private sector, and we will continue to share our experience,” Ma said. “The purpose is to rally more people and promote more public good in society.”
Luohan is a Buddhist term for “beings who have achieved a higher state of consciousness.” It also refers to empathetic thinkers who put great efforts toward resolving the pressing issues facing the world.
The academy’s advisory committee include six Nobel laureates, tech pioneers, and professors from a who’s who of the world’s top universities. Earlier this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, the academy unveiled a paper titled “Digital Technology and Inclusive Growth.”
The report examined the relationship between digital technology and economic growth, underlining how digital technology can foster inclusive growth in a way earlier technology revolutions did not, provided all stakeholders stay involved.
“We believe that the digital economy is a good opportunity for inclusive growth in the world. Secondly, there are many threats to the to the problems of now, but no one is an expert on tomorrow,” said Ma. “Our governments, academia, and the private sector should work together to solve the problems. Thirdly, we should formulate sound policies using today’s wisdom, instead of solving tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s practices.”
Ma said a key to making the vision into reality is for all parties to take responsibility for shaping the future, rather than naysaying or standing on the sidelines.
“The world has a big problem today, and I’m worried about it. The world needs leadership in digital technology,” said Ma. “The speed of global change is bound to be faster and faster, which will cause many social issues.”
Alibaba stepped up as a leader in e-commerce long ago, sticking to a mission and vision that have enabled it to make the digital world more inclusive, Ma said. Since then, it has pushed out the boundaries of inclusiveness across the tech sector, into cloud computing, payments, health, delivery, sports, entertainment, and other areas.
“Alibaba grew up thanks to the digital revolution. We also want more people to enjoy digital technology and make it more affordable,” said Ma.
Ma acknowledged differing views of the future, suspicions about technology, biases, demographics, data privacy and control, and geopolitical tensions make “everyone nervous, but those of us who are involved love technology and believe there are solutions.”
Information, he said, needs to flow as freely as goods did when goods trade initially took off. And while nobody is certain what the future will bring, he’s sure that “today people dislike artificial intelligence, but the future will not work without AI,” said Ma.
“No one can stop the development of technology. How can human beings find the right vision and ways to solve problems in cooperation with the government, academia, and the private sector?” Ma said.
As he has done with pretty much every Alibaba unit, Ma has set lofty goals for Luohan Academy.
“On the 10th anniversary of Luohan Academy, I believe that we will become Davos of the technical community,” said Ma.
Ma, of course, will no longer be Alibaba’s Executive Chairman when that day arrives, nine years from now, as he will retire from his chairman’s role on Sept. 10 this year. But he expects the think tank “to let us know what Alibaba can do to better benefit the world.”