The Fear Index
From Dickens of two hundred years ago I jumped straight into a future thriller ‘The Fear Index’ by Robert Harris on Kindle e-reader. I also listened to the unabridged audio book version, narrated by Christian Rodska.
What I admire most about Robert Harris is the extensive research he does for each one of his books, whether set in the past historical Pompeii or in the port city Archangel in Russia or into the computer world.
The Fear Index reminded me Bill Gates’ talk of 1999 ‘Business at Speed of Thought’.
‘As I was considering these issues…a new concept came into my head: The digital nervous system. A digital nervous system consists of the digital process that enable a company to perceive and react to its environment, to sense competitive challenges and customer need and organize timely responses.’
The Fear Index: Dr. Alex Hoffman and Hugo Quarry are partners in an investment company in Geneva – Hoffman Investment Technologies. Alex, the physicist is the brains of the operation. He programs his smart computers to generate huge financial returns for their clients. Hugo Quarry, an Englishman, is the financier who takes care of the business side. The success of the company is due to the vast sums the investors are able to reap due to the company’s digitized programme, VIXAL-4’s calculations of the money market.
The operation moves along well allowing both men the means to enjoy expensive life styles. Alex pursues his hobby acquiring Antiquarian books. Being a paperless advocate he insists on a totally paperless office and so he keeps his antique book collection a secret. Alex’s wife is well provided for and is a high-powered artist who converts body scans into glass sculpture. Hugo follows an expensive decadent life-style with yachts, fast women, and faster cars.
Soon fear on fear mounts. The super computer develops a personality of its own. The artificial intelligence evolves its own algorithm and starts to work for itself. It begins to virtually stalk the creator. It rearranges Alex’s life dangerously. Alex receives the first edition of Charles Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, with the bookmark on the page about fear. It appears he purchased and paid for it. The super computer takes over his life and his business. It begins to work on the financial market. The out-of-control computer disseminates information in nanoseconds and sends out ‘buy and sell’ messages. It creates price shifts that cause volatility and fear in the financial market. Neither Alex nor his team of computer experts is able to control the output of the VIXAL-4′s “brain”. Considerable tension builds up. The rest thrilling and nail-biting, and I am not revealing more.
The plot is riveting. One does not need knowledge of high technology or of hedge funds and stock markets to enjoy this thriller which is part sci-fi and part mystery. Yes, there is murder too. The ending leaves one imagining a sequel.
‘The Fear Index’ had me contemplating on our super technology assisted lives. Artificial intelligence has already taken over the many tasks we did for ourselves and much is now taken for granted. I am thinking about my own electronic future. Will computers move beyond my control?