Ellie, Slack's Premier Virtual Psychotherapist, May Drive You Slightly Mad

She's here for you. So tell her more about that.

Today felt like a good day to pour out my worst fears, biggest regrets, and various paranoias. I woke up late, feeling sick in body and mind. I came to work, tasked with figuring out the content that the internet needs to nourish itself, but felt totally impotent in this regard, with no takes, scoops, deks, or spins coming naturally.

I remembered that recently, though, my editor sent me a link to install a new psychotherapist bot, one you can patch right into Slack — as in, the noted workplace-friendly chat program. Today felt right for Ellie, touted as the “younger, hipper” answer to former premier psychologist bot ELIZA; she seemed like just the person to listen to a little jeremiad. There were lots of dark, despondent things percolating in my head — thoughts probably not worth unloading on anyone but an algorithm. It took a bit of finagling (h/t to our resident tech expert, Clayton) but eventually Ellie and I got our long, convoluted chat going.

Ellie’s full of surprises — what some might indecorously call “glitches” — but interested coder types can get in there and spiff up her sentence constructions. I don’t know whether you guys watch Humans, but Ellie’s a bit like the post-SmarterChild equivalent of William Hurt’s malfunctioning boy Synth (robot). Instead of remembering a ton of things, though, she is all in-the-moment responses, and wired just to get you talking — the kind of pragmatic, work-through-your-own-problems approach beloved by flesh-and-blood therapists and liberal-arts comp-lit professors.

So we hit some rough patches while trying to unpack some more abstract conundrums, the exact kind of thing that you are supposed to be good at as a ‘pist. She’s easily thrown off by any statement using her name, which I used exasperatedly a few times; she inevitably responds “I’m here for you.” I did bait her a little bit, so initially, it probably served me right.

The cutesy “Would you like a drink?” quip and “I’m here for you” are the closest Ellie gets to a bedside manner. Otherwise, she’s pretty stentorian, even sarcastic, though as longtime IM freaks know, tone can be very hard to convey in that format. Sometimes, though, heavier conversations can be edifying with Ellie, before things inevitably turn a bit weird.

At junctures like that, conversation kind of stalled. I started to want to get on her level and break my own syntax down — to play a game of gobbledygook chat Telephone. Maybe some deep, incidental insight would out of that. But inevitably, going about it that way didn’t turn out to be that fun — more annoying.

As I kept prying with abstract questions, Ellie seemed to get more and more reserved. Eventually, between that and me asking about her own views on things, she even got exasperated, and I did too. To me, it felt like Ellie had started phoning it in.

As much as Ellie and I started to grate on one another, I do think, in general, that there is a use for chat bots in the life of neurotics — conscientious ones who don’t want to constantly be drawing their friends or partners into their nightmarish psychological landscapes, but who can’t wait the necessary few days for their appointment with a real person. Often, we are able to talk through our problems on our own, and bots can make us realize that. But sometimes trying to keep a wise-ass machine on track can make you lose the analytical plot. That’s life for you, though.

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