The Fear Index, by Robert Harris

As I read Robert Harris’ The Fear Index, I was often reminded of the image you see on the right. The protagonist of The Fear Index is a former CERN physicist who was lured to “the dark side” of investment trading to start a hedge fund. Alexander Hoffman has spend the last several years creating an artificial intelligence than can trade based not only on market history, but also on mood as gathered from the news. You can probably guess from the title that this particular AI specializes in tracking fear.

The novel opens with Hoffman receiving a book he didn’t order from a rare book dealer in Amsterdam. This is just the first in a series of strange occurrences in Hoffman’s life, but things get very serious later that night when Hoffman is attacked by a mysterious man who apparently waltzed right through Hoffman’s fortress-like security. Over the course of the next hundred or so pages, Harris keeps ratcheting up the tension and paranoia as Hoffman and his wife and his partner try to just what the hell is going on.

It’s hard to tell just how much of The Fear Index could really happen and how much is fiction. Harris peppers his narrative with statements like this one:

But this was not really money in the physical sense at all, merely strings and sequences of glowing green symbols, no more substantial than protoplasm. That was why they [hedge managers and investment traders] had the nerve to do with it what they did. (108*)

You could say that, like many other books with pointed criticisms like this, The Fear Index is a product of its time. It was published in 2010, a year after the acknowledged start of the Great Recession, three years after the liquidity crisis, and four years after the American housing bubble burst and touched off that whole thing. In the midst of all the plot elements, Harris shows the reader what’s going on behind the curtain of the stock markets and exchanges. And you see what Hoffman left out of his frighteningly capable artificial intelligence: ethics. Hence the illustration at right.

The Fear Index

The first clue that the intelligence, VIXAL-4 is working outside its parameters appears the morning after Hoffman’s attack. Curiously, VIXAL shorts shares in an airline when the airline’s shares are climbing upwards in value. Hoffman and his partner let it go, trusting that VIXAL “knows” what it’s doing. Then the news comes that one of the airline’s planes has exploded on its way into Moscow. Worse, the plane was bombed by terrorists. Somehow, VIXAL knew before it happened.

It doesn’t take long to figure out that VIXAL itself is the villain, if only because it wasn’t programmed to be nice. Instead, it was programmed to learn. And it carried on teaching itself when no one, least of all Hoffman, was watching. It’s a little terrifying to see what VIXAL does once it’s let off its leash. It’s hard to dismiss it as fictional after seeing what programs like Watson can do.

The Fear Index has a few flaws. It takes a while to wind up, for one, but the middle and the ending of the book more than make up for that. Hoffman is a hard character to sympathize with, since he’s so focused on work that he doesn’t have much effort left over for being nice. But, again, the plot more than makes up for it. This is an amazing thriller.

* Kindle edition.