The Fear Index

Although the IBM computer, Watson, made humorous mistakes when competing with two humans on the television show Jeopardy, Watson still won the game.  In Robert Harris’ mystery thriller, The Fear Index, the stakes are higher, and who has the real intelligence is questionable.

Dr. Alan Hoffmann has traded up from his job as a physicist working on creating artificial intelligence to organize the data from the Large Hadron Collider to owning a hedge fund company that uses algorithms based on fear to predict market values that “thrive on panic.”  It was a good move; he is now worth billions.

Hoffmann’s story opens with a burglary at his entry-proof mansion, and accelerates quickly into a nightmare of alienating his wife, losing control of his company, and perhaps his mind.  As he faces each new fear, he frantically tries to uncover if he has been the mad man behind them, or if the computer program he created is the mastermind.

“Fear of the intruder in the night. Fear of assault and violation. Fear of illness. Fear of madness. Fear of loneliness. Fear of being trapped in a burning building…”

The recent financial crisis across the world markets becomes an important character, with Harris referencing real events.  But more than the compelling thrill of the action, Harris offers a cautionary commentary on the role of corporations and the evolution of computers –  turning over decision-making to the “cloud” could be dangerous.

The action is fast and furious; I read the book in one sitting.