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-connected world. "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."