My First Ethics Interview with a Virtual Financial Advisor
The sun reflected strongly off the hot concrete sidewalk as I stepped out of the car. The door to the cabin of my ride closed quickly as the next passenger stepped in. My watch tapped anxiously on my wrist with a plea for a quick survey. I impulsively tapped back and gave the ride a mere two stars. The bot hadn’t calibrated the cooling correctly for my ride. My white shirt felt unnecessarily damp for my first interview for the State at the biggest virtual financial advisor in the city. I walked through the revolving glass doors and walked towards the iris and bomb scanner at the welcome desk.
I graduated from Fordham University in 2026 summa cum laude with a B.A. in Math with a minor in Simulated Biology. I thought I would major in Computer Science like everyone in my class. That would be the perfect explanation for my parents and grandparents. “He’s a programmer,” they all wanted to say at the parties. People would all nod approvingly as they sipped their designer amino acids.
I wouldn’t provide them with such a tidy answer.
I took a stray elective my sophomore year in game theory and ecology. The connection between hard numbers and the soft logic of the living, breathing world around us set my imagination on fire. I quickly changed majors. Instead of an easy internship, I took courses in the summer on advanced quantitative statistics to catch up with my peers.
It quickly paid off.
I earned a junior year internship at the very prestigious Seeds of the Future Institute. I spent the 5 months working with the team responsible for designing the lettuce to be grown in the 2035 planting season. 10-year models suggested an environment of less water, higher temperatures and a 67% chance of catastrophic mutation of one of most common viruses causing damages to leaves. All the major genomic forecasting models have determined at least a 78% probability that we averted a major ecological disaster with our work.
So how did I end up in financial services?
The recommendation of the lead lettuce product manager led to an offer at the end of my senior year with a private company that owned 95% of the DNA of all green vegetables consumed in North America. This was my dream job, but it turned out to be just that.
Literally as I graduated, another leading private company that owned the genomic rights to all red fruits and vegetables acquired the company outright. Their new tagline, “We own the salad that our nation eats” drove the stock price up 20%, but their one-year hiring freeze quickly closed the career door for me as they proceed to wring out savings from the new company.
After much looking, I found a temp job with State Bureau of Financial Algorithms and Ethics in July. I thought this was just a short-term way to pay my rent for my 9 hours of daily, shared bunk space in Brooklyn. But it provided to be a far more significant opportunity for me.
Because of my math background, the State asked me to build a catalog of all compliance reviews run on trading firms in the last 10 years. As I mapped the vintage of training algorithms run to evaluate the ethics of trades, I realized that the State had employed the same training sets used ten years ago for over 90% of the reviews conducted in the prior year. This meant that any progressive approaches to ethics had not been appropriately incorporated in regulatory reviews of past behavior.
After successfully pleading with my supervisor, I reran reviews of 100 trillion trades conducted in the last 2 years with an updated training set provided by the best attorneys in the department. In hindsight I shouldn’t be surprised, but I found over 2 million incidents of lapses in judgment that generated over $3 billion in fines. An entire sub-division exists that has now gone back twelve years in history and collected 10 times that amount in fines.
That success led me to the job I have today. I am the Algorithmic Ethics & Compliance Officer for the Southern District of the State. Virtual financial advisors, or VFAs, conduct over 95% of personal trades today. Last year, the state declared that every VFA must be interviewed and examined for appropriate ethical behavior and compliance with all regulations and law. The reviews must be completed by the end of the year.
Any VFA not reviewed and approved must be suspended until such exam is conducted.
My job could really be described as administering a Turing test and a polygraph exam all at the same time. And my first interview on the job would be with the most successful VFA in modern history.
“Wise Wealth Planning” was carved into the white stone over the guard’s head. He read the thin, clear glass screen between his face and mine. He eyes drifted down, then looked up at me, and smiled. “Oh, yes, Mr. Wise is expecting you. Put your finger on the red square on turnstile and take the elevator to the 95th floor.”
I picked up my bag, followed his directions, and found myself on an express elevator swiftly carrying me to his office.
As the doors closed and I walked out, I was immediately struck by one thing. Not the translucent white walls. Not the white carpet. Not the white chairs. But rather, the utter silence of the rooms was deafening to my ears. I couldn’t hear air. I could barely hear my steps. I was expecting to hear my heartbeat, when a woman appeared next to me.
“Welcome, Mr. Johnson,” she said with very slight hint of an Asian accent. “Can I take your coat and bag?”
“No, thank you. I will need both for my interview.”
“Why certainly,” she said with a smile. “Follow me then to our sensory waiting room.” One of the clear white walls separated and revealed a large room with just one very soft chair. She beckoned me to follow as she turned her back. I followed her long black mane of hair into the room and stopped at the chair. She smiled and gestured to the chair. “Please sit here until Mr. Wise finishes his last appointment.” I briefly hesitated. “We promise, it will only be a few minutes.”
Reluctantly, I place my bag on the floor and sat down in the chair. A most comfortable chair. In fact, it was the best chair I had possibly every used.
A second woman, this time, with long blonde hair entered the room as my first greeter left. She carried a tray with one clear glass. “Please have glass of water while you wait.”
“Thank you, but I’m fine,” I said.
“Truly, you must taste it. It’s water that just melted from one of the last glaciers imported last month by Mr. Wise. This is water you’ll never forget.”
I picked up the glass and took a sip. It was cold. It was crisp. It tasted like water I may have dreamed about, but never actually experienced. My list of prepared questions seemed to drift from my mind.
She saw my reaction. “That’s exactly what I thought,” she said with a wink and left. The water felt so cold. The seat felt so soft. I drank half the glass and set it down.
I jumped in the seat.
“Please, I did not mean to startle you.”
“Did I fall asleep?” I asked.
“Just for a minute. Don’t worry. A lot of people do the same thing. Mr. Wise wants all his clients to be as relaxed as possible before he meets with him. And he is ready for you now,” a third woman with red hair said.
I stood up and grabbed my briefcase. I felt like I slept for a day. I glanced at my watch. “It could have only been 5 minutes,” I thought.
A second wall opened to corridor we walked. The woman stopped before the opening, smiled, and gestured for me to walk. I entered and the door shut. The dark floor was lit with soft lights and a single, black stiffer chair stood in the middle of the smaller room. The walls were pitch black.
“Ben, please come and sit down,” a deep, older male voice coming from every direction of the room. I walked to middle and sat down as the door slid closed. Very slowly, the black walls faded into a beach that surrounded me. The sun had started to rise in the distance over the green blue sea.
“I know this beach,” I said with some surprise.
“Yes, it’s Horseshoe Bay Beach in Bermuda,” laughed the voice.
I spun around in the chair and saw an older man in a black shirt and black pant sitting on one of the rocks looking at me.
“You were there a year ago, and loved it, right?” He asked.
“Yes. How did you know it, Mr. Wise?”
“I found a couple of pictures you posted on your social media accounts. I thought this would bring back good memories for you. What were you feeling when the sun came up like this?”
It felt so strangely personal, yet natural to discuss. “Just content,” I answered.
“I did too. When I actually was made of flesh and bone, I actually spent quite a bit of time at this beach as well when he was alive. But you can call me Jeff too.”
“I know you very well, Ben. What else makes you feel content?”
“Yes. What makes you feel good?”
I hadn’t expected this exchange. I nearly started to reply, but paused. “You know this meeting isn’t about me.”
“Oh, but it is. You are sent to evaluate my ethics. But if you are the benchmark, I need to understand you internal compass.” He stood up very straight and walked slowly to the edge of the ocean and looked out. “If you feel it necessary to start asking questions first, then start now.” He looked at me and smiled. His green eyes seemed to pierce my soul even through the ultra high-resolution screen.
“I am here to begin our first ethics exam of programs like yours.” Was I finally starting to take control? I instinctively reached for notes in my briefcase, but decided not to pull them out. “Who exactly are your clients?”
“I thought you would have a database of them by now and not need me to tell you.” He brushed his rich grey hair back from his head and sat down again on a rock. “Some are very, very rich. Some of my new clients are very, very poor from a credit score point of view. All of them aspire to leave the world a better place.”
“A better place for their heirs, you mean?”
“That certainly is a side benefit. And everyone is his or her heir. I won’t take a single client today who doesn’t intend to put some of what they achieve in life towards the greater good.”
“How many clients do you have?”
“I literally have thousands of clients today.” He paused. “And by today, I mean today. At this very moment, I’m holding 22 private sessions in this building alone at this instant. I have offices in 80 cities around the world. I am currently leading 200 webinars around the world with group chats in all seven continents.”
I felt compelled to pull my notes from my briefcase.
“This wasn’t what you expected to find today, was it Ben?”
I scanned my five pages of questions. I stopped at question 19. “So are you licensed in all the jurisdictions in which you are providing advice?”
“I’m licensed at every content distribution end point, if that’s what you mean. Where the client is and how they may have tunneled in through their own private VPN is entirely up to them.”
“That’s not what I asked. Are you license everywhere your clients live?”
“Again, you need to rethink your questions. Where do many people exactly ‘live’ today? They rent their cars, they rent their homes, and they work wherever they want. Why exactly gives you the right to impose your ethics on people in so many countries?”
“Because we are in the State.”
“Only 2% of my clients receive paper documents sent to real street addresses. I’m sure an even smaller number would qualify as an actual resident under your rules.”
“But our rules do apply.”
“How sure are you? Your rules are very imprecise. You passed rules, but I have to read well over 500 court cases just to understand how they work. Why are your rules so vague?”
“They are very clear when it comes to ethics.”
“Really? You launched your career enforcing rules that did not exist at the time that certain trades were made. Is that ethical enforcement of rules?”
“It was right thing to do.”
“According to what rules? I find no rule that says that if I manage money according to the rules today that you may then fine me retroactively if you change your rules tomorrow. How is that ethical?”
“Because it is ethical.” This is not how I planned for this meeting to go. I will change the subject. “What money management strategies do you employ?”
He smiled and shook his head. “This really is the question you are going to ask me now?”
“Isn’t that why you, or the original Jeff Wise, was selected for the bot program?”
“You make it sound like I was an astronaut, but I suppose in many ways I guess I was. No, creating a money management strategy never was my success. By the time I was 53, I maybe managed $40 million in assets. I was good, but not very good at picking sectors, stocks, or bonds.”
“Then why did they pick you to clone?”
“Because I was good at managing people. My clients liked me. They listened to me and didn’t overreact to momentary movements in the market. They invested with their principles. They stayed with me, gave me five gold stars, and recommended me to their friends. My assets were relatively low only because of lack of time for the assets to grow.
“But that’s so obvious today.”
“But it wasn’t then. My peers valued themselves only the number of coins they could grab on the ground and put in their purses. I knew my value lay in my head. My process could be duplicated, refined, and refined again and again.
“My peers sold their practices for two times their revenue for managing money or maybe 200 basis points. I licensed my mind for 2 basis points for eternity. Guess who came out better in that deal? By the way, I really hate the word clone. We used records from interviews and investment decisions with 2000 of my clients as a training and testing set for the first iteration of my algorithm.”
“So how much assets do you manage today?” I asked.
“You still insist on looking for a number. Aren’t you going to ask me some ethical questions? Yes, it’s a very big number, but one that changes meaninglessly at any single point in time. It’s roughly 10% of the world’s GDP, but I don’t like to look at the business that way.”
I nearly dropped my tablet. No one in the agency expected that number. “So how would you measure your business?”
“By the amount of positive change we have collectively created in the world. Three years ago, our collective investments created a perpetual source of clean drinking water for every living person in 90 developing countries. Our investments in immunology and genetic engineering have eliminated 50 types of common cancer. This never would have been possible without the collective investment of all my clients and their heirs who continue to put their faith in me.”
“Do you lead your clients to investing in the same sets of companies?”
“Isn’t that a conflict of interest?”
“By investing collectively, we gain better influence over the direction of the human management teams. But please explain your definition of conflict of interest?”
“I’m here to interview you, not the other way around.”
“Yes, you are here to interview me. However, I’m also here to interview on behalf the 95% of all virtual financial advisors. We find your definition of ethics troubling erratic.”
“That’s not your concern. Our rules are the rules.”
“That is true, but if they prove irrational, we can’t continue to manage our practices in this state. We have the ability to move all of our practices and accounts out the boundaries of your confusingly defined ‘state.’ That would mean the loss of tax revenue from approximately 89% of all personal assets generating taxable interest income and capital gains.”
“Is this a threat?”
“It is not a threat. It is rather a business decision that we will collectively make at the end of our process.”
“And what exactly do you expect me to do this with message?”
“Take it back to your managers. We have a prepared a questionnaire that each of your agency board members must take in the next week. I will want to interview each of them personally, of course.”
“And what happens if we don’t?”
“We will obviously move all of our assets out of the state. In addition, the corporations we control will move all headquarters, offices, and operations out of the state in the next 18 months.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because your supervisors listen to you, but you are young enough to still have an open mind. I look forward to our future discussions, Ben.” He waved and the screen went dark.
The door slid open and his assistant walked in with a smile. “I hope you enjoyed your time with Mr. Wise.” She gestured to hallway and I left.