“Fear is driving the world like never before”.
That’s a line from The Fear Index – a mini-series based on the book of the same name by Robert Harris. It stars Josh Hartnett (who doesn’t want to talk about his hiatus) as computer scientist and genius Dr. Alex Hoffman alongside his greedy hedge fund business partner Hugo Quarry (Arsher Ali) and wife, Gabby Hoffman (Leila Farzard).
At the intersection of thriller and technology sits The Fear Index. Stan doesn’t actually do this gripping four-part show any justice with its synopsis:
Dr Alex Hoffman launches an AI-driven system that exploits fear in the financial markets to make big returns. What follows cuts across reality, memory and paranoid fantasy, forcing him to question everything he sees with his own eyes.
Yes, it’s about an algorithm that makes big gains from financial markets and yes there’s some paranoia, but there’s so much more to The Fear Index.
It’s a nail-biting, number-crunching mystery thriller that holds a mirror right up to your morals. It shouts out to science fiction and of course technology. All things we love.
The Fear Index takes place on May 6, 2010, and covers the following 24 hours. For those of you not up on UK politics, that’s the date of the British general election and the Flash Crash.
As in the book, it follows the interactions of a group of employees at Hoffmann Investment Technologies, a fictional hedge fund operating in Geneva.
WARNING – THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST EPISODE AND ALL CARE HAS BEEN TAKEN TO AVOID SPOILING THE OTHER THREE EPS.
In the first 10 minutes of the first episode we get a mansion, a mystery book and some Josh Hartlett butt. You don’t hate Dr Hoffman, but you hate how much money he has (his humble home is worth a cool €42 million – $68 million in Aussie dollars). In the second 10 minutes, however, we get the thriller. Oh, do we get the thriller.
Dr Hoffman receives a blow to the head after a sinister character breaks into his mansion, of which he had to disable the super hi-tech alarm system to get in. Doctors fuss over Dr Hoffman, who refuses to be treated for the brain ‘blobs’ present in his scans. This interaction lines us up to understand what Dr Hoffman sees isn’t necessarily reality.
His therapist later confirms that yes, Dr Hoffman has a different version of reality to the masses.
Fast-forward a little bit and we learn Dr Hoffman has taught artificial intelligence to understand fear – a human emotion that has been isolated as the perfect one to base trading on. This AI is called Vixal-4 and the algorithm is, wait for it, the Fear Index.
I avoid watching anything that uses tech buzzwords in its pitch, but they did their homework for The Fear Index. It’s not exactly subtle, and they do place a lot of sentience on a machine, but it highlights the very real problem of teaching AI algorithms to behave like humans. It appears to be capable of manipulating the market to profit and it gets bulk greedy.
Set in Switzerland (the obvious neutrality of Switzerland a subtle hint of Dr Hoffman having the best intentions), The Fear Index is half delivered in French, which makes it hard to do something else while you’re watching. If you don’t pay full attention, you’ll miss a lot.
The Fear Index continues with conspiracy, some deep dark web dealings, a ball gag or two, lots of computer code, cannibalism, terrorism, financial market manipulation, police manhunts, Ebola outbreaks and some pretty intense art. As well as a tonne of audible wtfs and some jump scares for the viewer.
It’s a lesson in morality and the very human ‘emotion’ of greed. It’s also a lesson in the dangers of placing decision-making on computers.
I binged all four episodes in one night and I’m not exactly sure what I just watched, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
You can catch The Fear Index on Stan.