When British thriller writer Robert Harris set out to write his new novel, The Fear Index, he had 1984 and Frankenstein on his mind. He wanted to explore how humans fall victim to the domineering forces of their time, and he set his sights on global finance.
Then on May 6, 2010, something known as a "flash crash" happened on Wall Street. The Dow plummeted — the result, in part, of lightning-fast, computer-generated trades.
Harris tells Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep that he had found the catalyst for The Fear Index, the story of a hedge fund, a scientist and his computer run amok.
Harris' protagonist is the brilliant physicist Alex Hoffman, who has made billions through his algorithm that tracks incidences of fear-related words on the Internet and uses them to decide when to buy or sell stocks. All goes swimmingly (and lucratively) for Hoffman — until the computer program begins misbehaving.
"I thought I was making it up," says Harris. "But when I finished the novel, I discovered this is happening [and] quite common, actually. [Topics] trending on Facebook, Twitter and so on [are] read by algorithms and factored into calculations as to what shares to buy."
Harris says the novel reflects his real-life anxiety that humans could end up subservient to computers with artificial intelligence.
"I don't think we will see it coming until it's too late. Already one feels with the markets that supposedly these machines are working for us — they're supposed to make the markets more efficient and so on — but there is a sense in which one feels that human beings have started to work for the machine," Harris says.
He says the plot of his novel taps into a common and deep-running fear in our highly complex, ultra-connectedworld. "I think a lot of us feel, when we look at the Dow Jones plunging, alienated — you do feel as if we're in the grip of some alien force that slipped human control," he says.
Such topicality can be seen as a departure for a writer whose novels have been steeped in history. Harris' debut novel, Fatherland, imagined what life would be like if Hitler had won World War II. Later came Pompeii, set in the Roman Empire, and Archangel, a story with roots in Stalin's Russia. In 2007 Harris turned to contemporary political fiction with The Ghost, a tale of an outgoing British prime minister who very much resembles Tony Blair.
But there has been a common thread in all his novels, Harris says: a preoccupation with power.
"I was a political journalist; I came to writing novels through an interest in politics and power," he says. "And now I think that if you want to write about power, go and look at computers, go and look at the financial markets. It seems to me ... that's nearer the cutting edge of what's guiding our lives now than conventional political parties."
But as Harris signifies in his novel, the change in power is not just from politicians to financiers and economists — not just from one group of humans to another. Increasingly, power has shifted onto a network of millions of computers linked together.
"It's not alive in any recognizable sense, and yet in a strange way, it's determining our existence, and it's also slightly outside human control," Harris says. "I mean, one cannot see any world leader who has got a grip on the financial markets these days. They're too big, too fast. I think that's quite scary."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The British novelist Robert Harris writes thrillers that are usually, in one way or another, about power. That's true whether he writes about Roman politicians or a disgraced former British prime minister. As he wrote his latest novel, Harris was thinking of George Orwell's "1984." That book described how governments used technology to dominate their people. The latest story from Harris explores technology that almost seems under its own power. Real life provided inspiration one day in May 2010.
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INSKEEP: Those were news reports from what's now known as the Flash Crash. The Dow plunged, then rose in part due to lightning fast computer-generated trades. Robert Harris had found the Frankenstein for his latest novel, "The Fear Index." It's the story of a hedge fund, a scientist and his computer run amok.
ROBERT HARRIS: I started writing the novel in the beginning of 2010. And I thought that I needed in it to see this computer causing some financial mayhem. And on the evening of the 6th of May 2010, I happened to turn on the television to find that exactly the event I've been trying to imagine in my novel was actually taking place in the United States. Wall Street went over a cliff and lost about 700 points in about eight minutes. And it wasn't until months later they could work out precisely what happened.
And it's that is why I have the sense in the novel that the thing has come alive. And I think a lot of us feel, when we look at the Dow Jones plunging, alienated. You just feel as if we're in the grip of some alien force that slipped human control. And it was that that I was trying to get at in the novel.
INSKEEP: How is it that human fear is mixing with this technology and the incredible speed of information?
HARRIS: Well, in the end its human beings who still sell most of the stock. And therefore, if there is a feeling of jitteriness that's creeping around the markets, that is reflected in what the algorithm - the fictional algorithm in the novel does is scour the Internet for incidences of fear-related words. And when I wrote this, I thought I was making it up. But that when I finished the novel I then discovered this is happening, quite common actually; trending on Facebook, Twitter, and so on is read by the algorithms and that it's factored in to their calculations as to what shares to buy.
INSKEEP: You mean that it suddenly people who are on Twitter are talking about violence in an oil-producing country, or just seeming anxious, that could actually move the markets.
INSKEEP: So, you had this American scientist - this computer genius, Hoffman, who has developed algorithms that play on fear, that work on fear and try to anticipate how that'll move markets and make billions of dollars as a result.
And I wonder if you could read a passage here from the book.
INSKEEP: This is him giving a little bit of a speech to potential investors, I believe.
(Reading) Although Hoffman had tried to avoid jargon, he had nevertheless sensed the growing bafflement among his audience. But now he had their attention, no question. He continued, fear is historically the strongest emotion in economics. Remember FDR and the Great Depression? It's the most famous quote in financial history: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. In fact, fear is probably the strongest human emotion, period.
(Reading) Whoever woke at four in the morning because they were feeling happy? It's so strong we've actually found it relatively easy to filter out the noise made by other emotional inputs and focus on this one signal. One thing we've been able to do, for instance, is correlate recent market fluctuations with the frequency rate of fear-related words in the media: terror, alarm, panic, horror, dismay, dread, scare, anthrax, nuclear.
(Reading) Our conclusion is that fear is driving the world as never before.
INSKEEP: I started getting tense just listening to that list of words.
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INSKEEP: Why is it that you choose to have the guy who invents this machine that gets out of control, why do you make him an American?
HARRIS: Purely because the financial markets are completely international; all the characters are of various nationalities. There's an India, a Chinese, a British. He doesn't have to be American. Essentially, he belongs to the international community of the geekâ¦
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HARRIS: ...or the nerd. You know, he sits and he mumbles and he's not very good with people. And it doesn't matter. I mean his nationality is it terrifically important.
INSKEEP: Let me ask this - I don't want to give away anything about the ending of this novel, which has a lot of twists and turns. But let me just ask this question in a general way. Do you have some anxiety in real life that we could end up in some way almost worshiping machines, computers specifically - artificial intelligence?
HARRIS: Yes, I think that - and I don't think that we will see it coming until it's too late. And already one feels with the markets that supposedly these machines are working for us. They're supposed to make the markets more efficient and so on, but there is a sense in which one feels as human beings have started to work for the machine. Our view of machines taking over was HAL in "2001."
INSKEEP: Stanley Kubrick movie.
HARRIS: You have to think, I think, differently about how this might operate. And it will operate through millions of computers linked together making calm and rational decisions. It's not alive in any recognizable sense. And yet, in a strange way, it's determining our existence. And it's also slightly outside human control. I mean one cannot see any world leader that's got a grip on the financial markets these days. They're too big, too fast - I think that's quite scary.
INSKEEP: I'm trying to think of the different stories that you've come by to talk with us about over the years. You have written novels about the Roman Empire. You wrote a novel about a very familiar-seeming British prime minister. Now you're writing about the present day and where we might be headed in the future.
What obsesses you throughout all these books? What is it you're driving at with such different stories?
HARRIS: Power, I think probably. I was a political journalist and I came to writing novels through an interest in politics and power. And I think I just like a butterfly hunter, I pursue it where I happen to see it.
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HARRIS: And now, I think that if you want to write about power, go and look at computers. Go and look at the financial markets. It seems to me there's more - it's nearer the cutting edge of what's guiding our lives now than conventional political parties. So, I think that that's what drove me to it. It was this Orwellian notion of what it is to be human and what are the things that are constantly acting on us, from cradle to grave, that shape the way we live?
We all want to live as individuals and make our own choices. And, to a large degree, we do. But there's always pressures around us to shape us. And I think that the shaping force is no longer the state, but are very much technology and corporations and money.
INSKEEP: The latest novel by Robert Harris is called "The Fear Index."
Thanks for coming by.
HARRIS: Been a pleasure.
INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.