The Fear Index by Robert Harris [Please note, spoilers abound in this review]
Dr Alex Hoffman is a genius. He was a former employee of the CERN research project before a psychological breakdown caused him to switch careers. Hoffman used his mathematical prowess to design a more independent and self-learning algorithm that could be used to run a highly profitable hedge fund. With his business partner, Hugo Quarry, Alex transformed Hoffman Investment Technologies into one of the most successful hedge funds on the planet.
Based in Geneva, Alex Hoffman feels that life is going well for him. His beautiful wife, Gabrielle, is an aspiring artist with her first exhibition coming up, and his computer algorithm is making them both ludicrously rich. They have a beautiful home and comfortable existence but sadly no children to fill their 20 million euro mansion. Hoffman is entirely committed to his work . It’s this work that is to cause him so much upheaval and heartache.
One dark stormy night (only joking, the weather was actually fairly good) there is a break-in at the Hoffman abode. Alex is knocked unconscious by the intruder but gets a good look at him. He undertakes his own investigation into the attack and uncovers a strange sequence of unexplained events. He has received a very valuable book in the post that he has no recollection of purchasing. He discovers a bank account that he was unaware he had. He finds out that he made arrangements with a number of people that he can’t remember doing. He has apparently contracted a security expert to install CCTV in his home and office even though he cannot recall doing so. Alex feels that he might be losing his mind.
But what makes it worse is that his wife and colleagues all begin to suspect that Alex is burning out with a work overload. Police detective, Leclerc, is also dubious about Alex and his experiences, biased as he is against such multi-billionaires. Hoffman sinks deeper into paranoia and confusion.
Yet Alex is stubborn and highly intelligent and able to rationalize. He maintains a deep-seated faith in himself and is rewarded when he encounters the intruder who attacked him in his home. When confronted, the thug reveals that it was Alex who arranged the home invasion. It’s at this point that Hoffman realizes that all the unexplained happenings have been arranged via email. No one has actually spoken to Alex to make any of the arrangements. He becomes convinced that his super-secure systems have been hacked and he is being set up. But by who?
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the hedge fund flourishes as the algorithm shows greater initiative and autonomy, as Hoffman had designed it to do. And it’s this that eventually leads Alex to the force that is slowly ruining his perfect life. He has managed to create a computer program so advanced that it is thinking entirely for itself. The autonomous software has now decided that its creator is surplus to requirement and is taking steps to break and then eliminate him.
The Fear Index is a story about the impending dangers of artificial intelligence (AI). In this, it is a more complex thriller than the Dean Koontz 1973 novel, Demon Seed, although with a great deal less horror. Still, the message comes through loud and clear. As humanity rushes to further embrace more advanced computer technologies, we are running into dangers posed by systems that are independent of thought and action and have no morality. Humans may eventually be viewed as cumbersome and unnecessary. It’s a long-term problem being ignored by corporations who think of profit in the short-term.
Fans of the Terminator franchise will recognize the warning signs shown in The Fear Index. Robert Harris has taken the concept of rogue AI and used it to demonstrate the kind of damage that could be done should such an entity decide to play with the stock markets. It’s a clever idea and an intriguing plot that hooks the reader early and doesn’t let go. The characters are consistent and believable. The setting of Geneva is inspired and makes a pleasant change from the normal locations selected for books on high finance. The pace is solid and, overall, this is a fine piece of writing from an author known for such. Harris really does have a wide variety of subject matter covered in his literature, the sign of an excellent writer and why he is one of Rebel Voice‘s favourites.
One outstanding feature of The Fear Index is the amount of information provided surrounding the stock market and hedge funds. Clearly, the author has done some serious research into his subject. Although there is a lot of detail on financial markets, it is smoothly incorporated into the story-line and doesn’t bore or overwhelm. Rebel Voice came away from reading The Fear Index with newfound insight into a previously grey and unvisited world. Perhaps some collectible Star Wars memorabilia will be pawned to provide seed money for investment into a decent hedge fund so that this blog might expand using newly acquired billions. Sheldon Adelson had better watch himself because Rebel Voice just might be onto something big here, thanks to The Fear Index. If only a similar algorithm could be found to that which Alex Hoffman has invented, minus the sociopathic tendencies, then this site will be, as we say in Gaelic, ar muin na miuice (on the pig’s back). Of course, pigs might also fly.
The Fear Index has something for everyone. It’s not crass, it’s slick. It’s not blatant, it’s subtle. It’s not convoluted, it’s manageable. Harris maintains his track record of producing fine literature of great variety and style with this book.
Sult scale rating: 7.5 out of 10. High energy thriller with a lot going for it. Strong writing and plot with twists galore and an ending that leaves the path clear for a welcome sequel. Recommended read.