Jack Ma and Elon Musk are pretty worried about a looming population collapse

On their minds.
On their minds.
Image: Reuters/Aly Song
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One of the biggest challenges for human beings in the next two decades will be the lack of more human beings, according to e-commerce giant Alibaba founder Jack Ma and Tesla founder Elon Musk.

The need for more babies was among the few topics that the two agreed on during a half-hour long chat today (Aug. 29) at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai. During the conversation, Ma and Musk riffed off of a number of topics related to AI, including work hours, education, life expectancy, and migrating to Mars.

Ma first brought up the topic about birth rate when the two were debating if AI would outsmart human beings in the future.

“Now in China today, we have 18 [million] new babies born every year, which is not enough. We need to have much more than that,” said Ma.  “I think the best resources of the human beings, or the best resources on the earth are not the coal, not the oil, not the electricity, it’s the human brains.” (China had 15 million babies in 2018, the lowest number in half a century.)

Musk said he thought the coming population decline—or “collapse” as he called it—might well be the gravest problem facing us. That’s a view that might seem odd to many in a world of 7.7 billion, expected to grow to 11 billion before tapering off.

“I am worried about the birth rate, which you alluded to earlier. Most people think we have too many people on the planet. But actually this is an outdated view,” Musk said. “I think the biggest problem the world will face in 20 years is population collapse. Collapse, I want to emphasize this. The biggest issue in 20 years will be population collapse—not explosion, collapse.”

Ma looks at the ceiling during his conversation with Musk.
Ma looks at the ceiling during his conversation with Musk.
Image: Screengrab/CGTN

Finally Ma, who seemed at times to be bored or puzzled by Musk’s comments, was on the same wavelength as the electric car entrepreneur.

“I absolutely agree with that. The population problem is going to face [a] huge challenge. 1.4 billion [in China] sounds a lot. But I think next 20 years we will see, this thing will bring big problems to China… Now you call it a collapse, I agree with that,” Ma said.

The world’s large and growing populating conceals huge differences across populations, with many countries now shrinking. China, which has long had the world’s largest population, has seen the number of births going down since 2017—even though it took away the decades-old one-child policy. Prominent think-tank Chinese Academy of Social Sciences predicted earlier this year that China’s population could start shrinking in eight years.

Japan, meanwhile, averaged 1,230 more deaths than births a day in 2018, while South Korea had 326,900 newborns in 2018, its lowest number since at least 1960.

A similar situation prevails in large swathes of Europe, as women increasingly remain single or marry but choose to have fewer children.

Even though the overall global population is expected to keep growing for another 80 years, more and more of it will be made up of older people, which may be why Musk dismissed immigration as a possible solution.

Both men have aired their population concerns before, with Musk tweeting about the topic in June.

Ma, meanwhile, this year encouraged his thousands of employees to have more sex and more kids. He offered the advice not long after defending the intense “996” work hours Chinese tech companies like his are notorious for—9am to 9pm, six days a week.

Perhaps people will have more time to follow his advice in the future, when AI makes it so that people only need to work 12 hours a week, as Ma hypothesized today.