Can a computer be more intelligent than its creator?
The Fear Index is the story of Alexander Hoffmann, a physicist whose main line of research is artificial intelligence. In the span of 24 hours, strange things have happened to Hoffmann. The story begins when an unknown intruder attacks him in his house. Later on, when he goes to work, further strange things happen, which makes Hoffmann think that he has gone crazy. One by one, he sees emails and transactions that were supposedly sent by him, but which he had no recollection of making. In the meantime, two people are dead, and the world's stock market seems to be on the brink of collapse.
This incredibly unbelievable premise is what makes this novel a page-turner. Unbelievable the idea might be, it actually happened in real life. In May 6, 2010, the Flash Crash happened. The Dow Jones plunged 1000 points, but recovered within minutes. This novel explores the idea of a non-human cause to this event. The Fear Index basically explores the idea of a scenario where humans are pitted against the computers that they have created. And based on the progression of events, this novel seems to suggest that computers can win.
After reading this novel, I find myself in the weird predicament of liking and hating this novel. Here is why.
I definitely enjoyed the pace of the novel. I do not read thrillers often, but this one was a breeze. I couldn't put it down. I wouldn't be surprised if this novel was published as a mass market paperback and did well as an airport novel. Every chapter had a hook, something that would make the reader think twice whether he would want to put the book down, or find out what happens next given the current chapter. In that sense, I commend the author for knowing what makes a reader push through. I definitely was not bored with this book.
However, there are also parts of The Fear Index that I despise. First of all, Alexander Hoffmann is a tough main character to sympathize with. Seriously, his earnings are in the billions, he lives in a 60 million dollar house in a swanky part of Switzerland, so when his house gets an intruder, part of me feels that I couldn't care less. Not to add the fact that he has very poor social skills, he is a genius with a PhD but with a very crooked sense of priorities. He's the type of person who would rather save his computers than his wife if he gets caught in a burning building. I find myself hard to identify with the main character. In fact, I hated this character, and only went ahead and read the rest of the book because, as I mentioned earlier, the author was quite good in crafting the plot that the reader just has to know what happens next, regardless of how alienating the main character can be.