A group of people from the tech industry in Waterloo, Ont. launched a new tool last week. It’s designed to provide a friendly voice to people suffering from breast cancer as well as friends and relatives with questions.
The creators of AskEllyn.ai say the website answers questions about breast cancer using the tone of Ellyn Winters-Robinson, a Waterloo breast cancer survivor who recently released a book called Flat Please Hold The Shame.
“They nailed my expression. She understands my story,” Winters-Robinson said. “And then she’s able to put the world together with all of that in this magical way that she she now can carry on conversations with you.”
Winters-Robinsok’s book, which is billed as a “girlfriend’s companion guide for those on the breast cancer journey”, was also the starting point for the website.
Winters-Robinson, who works in marketing, began writing the book as she battled the disease.
“I always thought I would write a book and I never thought I’d write this one,” she said. “I also have a really, black sense of humour and so I would see little funny bits along the way. So I started writing the book on my phone at two o’clock in the morning, hopped up on steroids as I was going through chemotherapy.”
The marketing executive also serves as a mentor at the Accelerator Centre in Waterloo, a launching pad for new start-up companies. The book was still in its manuscript phase when she had a chat with Patrick Belliveau, an inquisitive mentee of hers at the Accelerator Centre.
“The meeting kind of went 180,” she explained. “All of a sudden it was all about Patrick grilling me about breast cancer. And I said to him, ‘Look, I’ll send you my manuscript.’”
Winters-Robinson told him she was looking to provide a girlfriend’s companion to provide some shared lived experiences.
While Belliveau assumed that chat groups were providing this type of support, she told him there were roadblocks with that type of help, making it difficult for those looking for someone to talk to about their cancer battle.
“So I sort of sat back and thought about this and thought, this is insanity,” he said. “You’re at the most vulnerable points you’ve probably ever been in your life.
“You’re vying for someone who has walked a mile in your shoes and the best we’ve done so far with humanity is giving you a situation where you have to be mentally tough to try to go after the thing you very much need in that moment.”
The conversation, paired with Belliveau’s interest in A.I., soon became the seeds from which the website grew.
“It dawned on me in that moment that this was the perfect opportunity to ground an artificial intelligence in Ellyn’s book,” he said
“But to provide this means of no judgment, no risk of a spiraling, kind of conversation with a shared lived experience.”
Noting that Winters-Robinson was active in the chat groups but could not possibly answer every post, he saw it as an opportunity.
“I mean, you can only scale Ellen the person to just, you know, she can only answer so many messages,” he said.
But while he is technically savvy, Beliveau is not a developer so he brought the idea to his friend Christian Silvestru.
“We were chatting around what he was going to do next, and I kind of told him about this crazy idea and he really took the ball and ran with it from a technological standpoint,” he said.
Ryan Burgio, another long-time marketing professional, also climbed aboard to help develop the idea as well.
“They all are very strongly united in the fact that they believe AI can complement and and enhance humanity, not replace it,” Winters said.
“And so I kind of fell into their lap with my lived experience and my story. And they came into my world with the tech. And within three weeks they had built a prototype of AskEllen.”
The trio began to send questions for her to answer on the topics while also using the manuscript as a means to capture her voice.
“Basically we are locking it into the context of her book was how largely we were able to grab her voice,” Belliveau explained. “We have some other tips and tricks in the framework that that helps ensure that her tone and the way that she delivers language matters.”
Winters-Robinson said that they soon had her essence, at least according to members of her family.
“It was really freaky because my family would ask questions, and I remember my daughter in law looking at me and saying, ‘Oh my God, I just spoke with you.’,” she said. “(AskEllen) understands my story and then she’s able to put the world together with all of that in this magical way that she now can carry on conversations with you.”
You can ask Ellen anything but Winters-Robinson and Belliveau say it will never dispense medical advice.
“One of the hard rules when we first conceptualized her was that she should never dispense medical advice,” Winters-Robinson said.
The creators say the website is designed to offer a friendly voice to those battling the disease or family and friends in need of someone to talk to.
“She’s never judgmental,” Winters-Robinson offered. “She’s never going to tell you to go pray for yourself or, you know, cast an opinion on you. It’s whatever, wherever, you’re at. She’s going to meet you and just be there to hold your hand.”
Belliveau noted that ask.ellen will try to match the reading level of the person asking the questions in an attempt to provide clear and understandable answers.
“The thing that I was really worried about is if you build a support tool and you try to help people and they don’t understand the message,” he said.
In addition, the say the site is also available for people to use in many languages.
“We can confidently say 100s – she speaks Russian, Hindi, Bengali, Arabic, Persian, Italian, French, German, Mandarin, Serbian, Polish, Spanish – those are just ones we have tried and tested. And the translation is not stilted – it’s very authentic and natural to the speaker,” Winters-Robinson said.
Now that the site has officially launched, the crew intends to continue to tweak it to make it better but it may become the launchpad for other similar tools as well.
“We’ve had people come to me and say, ‘Hey, my dad has prostate cancer.’ You know, could you build a tool for prostate cancer? Because we don’t know how to help my dad right now’,” Belliveau said.
“It’s become apparent that there’s this human-to-human need.”