Coming soon to a tech billionaire’s Silicon Valley home, Morgan Freeman is: Jarvis.
As I wrote yesterday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has finished building Jarvis, his home AI assistant. Among other things, the system can turn lights on and off, play music based on the personal tastes of both him and wife Priscilla Chan, automatically open their front gate for friends, make toast, and even wake up their one-year-old daughter Max with Mandarin lessons.
The system was inspired by Tony Stark’s Jarvis AI, from the Iron Man movies. Stark, of course, is played by Robert Downey, Jr., and after Zuckerberg asked the public in October who should be the voice, Downey himself volunteered, saying he would “do it in a heartbeat” if actor Paul Bettany, the voice of Jarvis in the Iron Man films, got paid and the resulting money went to a charity of Benedict Cumberbatch’s choice.
But the public had other ideas. Zuck’s post inspired more than 50,000 comments, and Freeman was the overwhelming choice to replace the standard female robotic voice with which the family currently interacts.
In an interview in the spacious living room of his classic 113-year-old Palo Alto, California home last week, Zuckerberg told me that at first he had no expectation it would end up being Freeman.
It turned out, though, that soon after the public’s clamoring for Freeman, Zuckerberg saw him at the Breakthrough Awards, which earlier this month awarded $25 million for scientific achievements.
“I called him after,” Zuckerberg told me, “and I said, ‘Hey, I posted this thing, and…thousands of people want you to be the voice. Will you do it?’”
The answer? “Yeah, sure.”
Facebook hasn’t said whether there’s any financial element to Freeman’s participation.
Many of the Zuckerberg family’s interactions with Jarvis are text-based–and for that they use either a Messenger bot or custom iPhone app. But there are certain situations that call for a spoken voice–among them commanding the system to play music, or to let someone in the house.
“Once you can speak to it, and it can speak back, it just feels much more—I don’t want to say part of the family, because that’s too much—but it just feels more embodied, so Max just loves it,” Zuckerberg explained.
That’s why Freeman will record a limited set of commands–fragments of speech, really.
And as Time reported in February, it turns out that there are actual scientific reasons that people love Freeman’s voice.
One is simply that we’ve gotten used to hearing him, thanks to his having appeared in dozens of films, including The Shawshank Redemption, Driving Miss Daisy, Million Dollar Baby, Deep Impact, and many others. He’s also done extensive voice work, including announcing the CBS Evening News, narrating Hillary Clinton’s introductory video at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, and warning of traffic problems in Waze.
There’s more to it than mere familiarity, though. Research has shown that people interpret low-pitched male voices like that of Freeman as attractive and showing strength.
So you can imagine the Zuckerberg family feeling secure hearing the 79-year-old actor’s voice every day.
“It’s not surprising that Morgan Freeman is used for a lot of voiceover work,” Casey Klofstad, an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami told Time, “because his voice is perceived as that of a dominant, strong male figure.”