The Fear Index is a 2011 novel by Robert Harris describing the fictional background to a stock market crash of 2010. The book describes a scenario where a brilliant American physicist, Alex Hoffman, sacked from his job developing artificial intelligence for CERN starts a new career, stock market trading in Geneva. Building on experience at CERN, he creates a computer system, called VIXAL, which looks for signs of global anxiety, via gloomy news reports, or any other internet source. The system then uses this data to make predictions about what will happen to stock markets, buying and selling in them accordingly.
Hoffman’s computer system is designed to take the scary uncertainty out of trading. VIXAL decides what to buy and sell without fear, or any other emotion. It simply uses measures of anxiety to make logical judgements on what the stock market might do. But this lack of feeling actually creates a frightening situation when the system achieves independent control of itself. First VIXAL starts using the internet to try to engineer situations to provoke fear in Alex Hoffman – since it has been programmed to seek out this emotion. The machine is a bit like a ruthless writer working to provoke scary thrills in a reader, since this is a good way to sell books. Then the system sets up a stock market crash to generate massive profits from betting on a downturn.
It is precisely because the system cannot experience emotion that its evolution to self awareness is so potentially threatening. VIXAL does not know pity or empathy, and will simply act to protect its own interests. The parallels with Frankenstein are interesting, another Monster created on the shores of Lake Geneva. Mary Shelley’s story is concerned with lost innocence. Similarly, VIXAL, in a sense, is innocent. It doesn’t mean any harm. However, the lack of malice is part of an unfeeling nature which makes the machine all the more dangerous.
In many ways this is a cerebral book, with its Frankenstein parallels, and quotes from Darwin and other thinkers introducing each chapter. But the thoughtful elements are combined effectively with a sense of emotion. Perhaps this is what novels at their best contribute – a view of the world which combines thought, and that other vital component in any understanding of human behaviour, emotion.