China’s biggest appliance maker wants to wire ‘Iron Man-style households’ for the networked era ahead

Martin Choi

Chinese conglomerate Midea is pushing ahead with a bold vision for the networked home, working with leading technology companies to create a living environment that one company official described as similar to the futuristic worlds depicted in Hollywood science fiction.

The mainland’s biggest maker of home appliances said its real estate arm, Midea Real Estate Group, will partner with cloud computing company AliCloud, video surveillance provider Hikvision, electric carmaker XPeng and other companies on developing an artificial intelligence (AI) ecosystem for the home.

“Our dream is for every household to have their own J.A.R.V.I.S.” said Li Qiang, head of Midea Real Estate’s Research Institute for Smart Homes, referring to Tony Stark’s artificially intelligent computer in the Marvel Comics franchise Iron Man.

Li said the plan would integrate the property developer’s smart home concept to an intelligent database.

“This would allow homeowners to monitor the conditions of their smart homes from their cars or office, and the other way around,” Li said.

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The research institute, launched on July 31, seeks to bridge artificial intelligence and smart appliances for both home and commercial applications.

According to Li, the research institute has developed its own “super brain” which links smart products to core platforms, including a business platform, data centre and internet of things platform.

“The super brain would allow our products to process and analyse the information obtained, as well as make decisions. It would also learn and remember the details of their working environment,” said Li.

“Owners will be able to monitor what’s happening when they are away from home. They will also be alerted when something abnormal happens or safety concerns arise, such as when an elderly family member falls down.”

Midea paid US$5 billion to take over German robot maker Kuka in In late 2016. Photo: Reuters

China’s smart homes market penetration is expected to reach 21.2 per cent by 2022, up from 4.9 per cent in 2018, according to Statista.

Investment in property technology globally has reached US$20 billion over the past six years, with more than a third of the money going into China, ­according to property broker JLL.

Property technology is the convergence of real estate with technology, involving anything from artificial intelligence, internet of things, data analytics, robotics and financial modelling software.

Midea, which ranked No 312 on the Fortune 500 list of leading global companies, began diversifying into China’s property sector in 2004.

China’s penetration rate of smart homes is expected to rise dramatically in the next few years, powered by the internet of things, artificial intelligence and 5G, according to analysts. Photo: AFP

Midea Real Estate listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange in October last year.

The developer has more than 200 smart home projects ongoing in Chinese cities and about 30,000 smart homes have been built by the company, according to Li.

Midea Real Estate laid out their strategy to develop smart homes in 2014, with ambitions to become a leading smart property developer.

“Real estate is a traditional industry, but the development and application of new technology has led to drastic changes and injected new energy into the industry,” said Feng Jun, president of the China Real Estate Association, speaking at the conference in Guangzhou.

“The emergence of new technology and models such as the internet of things, artificial intelligence, 5G, big data, and new forms of retail has redefined what a ‘good product’ is in the real estate industry,” said Feng.

Midea ranks as China’s largest maker of home appliances. Midea air conditioners on sale in a Gome electrical appliances store in Beijing. Photo: Alamy Stock Photo

Midea Real Estate ranked 39 among China’s property developers in terms of sales in 2018 with 79 billion yuan (US$11.21 billion), according to data from property consultant CRIC.

In late 2016, Midea paid US$5 billion to take over German robot maker Kuka, after buying a 80.1 per cent stake in Toshiba’s home appliance unit in March of that year.

The acquisitions follow the 2015 release of China’s economic blueprint “Made in China 2025”, underlying a national mission of transforming the country into an advanced manufacturing powerhouse. The strategic tasks include accelerating the development of smart manufacturing, with research and development of robotics as a highlight.

AliCloud is a subsidiary of Alibaba, which owns the South China Morning Post.

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