The world’s first conversation AI tool to help people diagnosed with breast cancer was launched at Catalyst Commons on Oct. 26. AskEllyn.ai uses generative artificial intelligence to help people get answers to their questions about breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. Public relations leader Ellyn Winters-Robinson and Patrick Belliveau and Chris Silvestru of Gambit Technologies developed the tool.
Receiving a cancer diagnosis is a life-changing moment, especially for the more than 28,000 women who are diagnosed with breast cancer every year in Canada. In March 2022, Winters-Robinson, president of Ignition Communications Inc. and a mentor at the Accelerator Centre, experienced this when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in her left breast.
“It came as a shock. I'm a healthy girl, and every woman who gets a breast cancer diagnosis always thinks, ‘It just can't happen to me.’ I had a clean mammogram two years before that, so it just goes to show you don’t know what can happen,” Winters-Robinson said.
A mastectomy was the only option for treatment, and she opted to have both breasts removed. After the surgery, her health team found some cancer in her lymph nodes, and Winters-Robinson required chemotherapy and radiation to complete her treatment. As a lifelong storyteller, she started to write a book about her experiences.
“I started writing a book on my phone at two o'clock in the morning. I was hyped up on steroids, just typing out stories and it started with this idea that I wanted to take somebody in the moment on the journey with me so that anyone who comes after me who is diagnosed knows that there's someone out there who feels what they're feeling and has gone through what they're going through,” she said.
In the spring of 2023, Winters-Robinson was getting ready to turn in her manuscript when she found herself on a call with Patrick Belliveau, co-founder of Shift Reality, a VR experience startup. Unknown to her then, Belliveau was advising a local startup working to build technology solutions using AI.
“Pat, being the inquisitive guy that he is, started peppering me with questions. It ended up that Chris, Ryan and Pat had the technology and I had the lived experience. We kind of fell into each other's lap, and within three weeks, they had an MVP (minimum viable product) of AskEllyn,” Winters-Robinson said.
The timing of their conversation couldn’t have come at a more critical moment for Silivestru. In April 2023, his mother died in a car accident, and in May, he decided to leave his role at Shopify. He said it was his wife who saw the need for him to find something to focus on, and she knew the person to spark interest was his friend Patrick Belliveau.
“My wife attends a lot of conferences, so I had gone out to one with her and was at the hotel – but I wasn’t doing well. My wife called Pat and said, ‘He needs you right now.’ We started talking, and he told me about this thing he was experimenting with with Ellyn. I knew it was a really good idea and something I could help with,” Silivestru said.
The release of ChatGPT in November 2022 sparked a rapid increase in the use of generative AI in almost every software, from search engines to photo editing tools and social media platforms. This gold rush for AI-powered tools has also been met with fears of AI being used to eliminate jobs and potentially put millions of people out of work. These fears are something Silivestru said he has also been thinking about.
“I love this concept of AI for good, but we’ve also seen a lot of negativity around AI. I'm not saying that AI doesn't have bad parts, I’m saying that we have so much good that we can do with it. But to do that, we have to start by acknowledging the bad and then asking, How can we actually help humanity?” Silivestru said.
Belliveau said he sees AI as an opportunity to rethink what our relationship with the internet is going to be. Today, you can search the internet for answers to any question. The challenge is that the answers provided to you are ranked using an algorithm rather than on their quality. The answers you find are also often generic.
“I’ve long thought that the relationship with the internet should be that it understands what I want, I shouldn't have to form to it. The paradigm has completely shifted now with AI. You can go on a site like AskEllyn and ask questions that you deeply care about and get answers instead of it making you read a bunch of different things that you don't care about. AskEllyn gives you personalized answers and insights based on what you ask,” Belliveau said.
AskEllyn uses Winters-Robinson’s stories from her book Flat Please - Hold The Shame as the base for its large language model. Users can ask any question, whether it is on what to expect from chemotherapy or how to speak with friends and family about a diagnosis. For external resources, Winters-Robinson curates the list of third-party sites that the tool will recommend.
“There's 1,001 questions that go through your mind. Am I going to lose my hair? What will the hair be that comes back? What kind of a bathing suit should I wear because I'm now flat? There are support groups for these questions, but they can get dark,” Winters-Robinson said. “Sometimes you just need a friend that understands. That's what AskEllyn is meant to do. She is that friend who will sit with you, say I know my journey is different from yours, but I get it. I’ve been there. I know how you're feeling right now.”
At the launch event, Winters-Robinson announced The Lyndall Project, a new non-profit foundation dedicated to advancing conversational AI care for patient journeys. She said the goal is to use AskEllyn’s core technologies to create conversational AIs for different cancers and other women’s health issues.
“My ambition is to help as many women have access to AskEllyn as possible. I don't want any woman who's diagnosed to ever walk alone. There are only so many books you can sell. With AskEllyn, we can help people worldwide and in any language. She really does realize my dream of wanting to help as many people as possible,” Winters-Robinson said.