Viewpoint: Diary of a Spectacle Designer

Tom Davies experiments with the latest AI chatbot and finds a monopolised future for eyewear retail

Artificial intelligence (AI) in general, and ChatGPT (generative pre-trained transformer) in particular, have been making the news recently and I decided to see if I needed to worry about a bot taking over my column in this magazine. This month, I wanted to write about the consolidation going on in our industry. A consolidation that was probably inevitable for many years but I believe the global pandemic made the conditions just right to accelerate the process. So, for a bit of fun, I paid £10 for a month’s premium subscription, opened the app and I asked my sinister looking ChatGPT to write an essay on ‘the consolidation of the eyewear industry and what this means to eyewear brands like Tom Davies’. That just about covers what I planned to write.

What came back was mind-blowing and quite frankly, a bit of a shock. The essay was a well-written piece of almost 700 words; well-constructed, backed up with facts and arguments then topped off with a conclusion. The essay began on the subject of the ‘Amazonification of eyewear’, which was a phrase that was new to me. I didn’t know you could get glasses on Amazon, so I went on and had a look. Yes, lots of frames are on the online retail behemoth’s platform and they are blooming cheap. It looks like reasonably OK eyewear too, complete with lenses featuring blue protect coatings, UV 400 filters and all for £15.

That stopped me in my tracks. My plans to talk about eyewear factories, which are buying each other up or the big groups buying acetate factories to protect their supply chains went out the window. I could have talked about the acquisitions of independent lens labs around the world or perhaps the groups of independents being bought up by large buying groups in every country I operate in.

ChatGPT didn’t care about any of this. Sure, it mentioned the Essilor-Luxottica merger and on the subject of Tom Davies, it seemed to have lifted copy from my various press releases, claiming that my bespoke service was the best protection against becoming insignificant in a world of consolidation. However, what struck me most about this experiment was the fact that the AI was looking well ahead and considering an endgame on the future of eyewear consolidation.

What ChatGPT seemed to suggest was that a large corporation, using AI, knows everything about you. In a common online retail space, it will start showing you glasses it knows you will love, with lenses you need, in your sizes for prices you cannot afford to turn down. This didn’t seem possible even a year ago, but the pace of change suggests it might just be now or very soon. Who is going to own patients’ optical data in a few years’ time? I already know of one virtual try-on app that has sold a third-party all of its collated data. Think of all that biometric data people have given away. I don’t even remember saying I was OK with that when I played with it. But that little box you tick to use the app? Who doesn’t tick it?

It seems to me it wouldn’t take much for a large global company to use AI to look at an individual’s online profile and start selling them stuff they might want to buy. I suspect many people would welcome it. I know this is already happening to an extent for other industries but how about in microscopic detail relating to eyewear? Going skiing at half term? Here are some polarised glasses, which perfectly fit your face, from a brand that represents your values and at a price you can afford. The latter is possible either from analysis of your shopping habits or just because it knows how much money you have in your bank.

What about prescriptions? Is it beyond the realms of possibility that some large global group will leverage a not-too-distant generation of AI to use your customers prescription data to sell complete glasses? I don’t even want to start thinking about lens design and how AI might replace the standard eye test. These advancements always seem to be ‘five to 10 years away’ when discussed in the press, but it all feels significantly closer after I had my first brush with a decent AI tool.

Back in the present, the eyewear shopping experience today on Amazon was terrible but it is there and it is going to improve. However fast the consolidation seems to be happening now is probably nothing like what is coming when AI is deployed by big online retail across a range of medical sectors. As ChatGPT put it to me, Amazonification is coming to eyewear. I can’t worry too much about that today, but I do need to unsubscribe from the service before my daughter uses it in her history exam next month.