“You could go from an idea to reality with technology”
Locum optometrist, Kishan Devraj, on a lockdown project that saw him create a chatbot for Moorfields Eye Hospital
I have been building websites for over 10 years. Before I started optometry, even during my A-levels, I found the technology interesting. Even back then, I thought ‘there is no limit to what you can build with technology.’ I think what excited me is that you could go from an idea to reality with technology. I didn’t always know how, but I knew that I could learn.
Programming is very creative – but you can get carried away, creating things that people don’t need. Just because you build something, it doesn’t mean that it has a value. The reason I believe that my experience in optometry helps, is that people come to you to solve a problem. I took that idea with me into technology.
It was lockdown that really accelerated my knowledge. During lockdown, I thought ‘What can I do that I enjoy?’ I didn’t just want to build websites and apps. I wanted to build tools with artificial intelligence. I saw on twitter that Mariya [Moosajee, Moorfields Eye Hospital clinician scientist] had launched a website for people with genetic eye problems. I messaged her, we had a call and I showed her what I could do. She thought that a chatbot would make the information on the website much more accessible.
I think what excited me is that you could go from an idea to reality with technology
The chatbot and an Alexa app has now launched on the Gene Vision website. If you have a genetic eye condition, or you have someone in the family who has a genetic eye condition, you can have a conversation with this chatbot. What we found is that a lot of people want to know the current research in their genetic eye condition. We are also finding that people want information on support. You can ask the chatbot questions like ‘Can I drive? What employment support is available?’
It is an artificial assistant – it’s not real but we can make it pretty accurate. We had one person during testing who thought it was an actual human on the other side. The work I did on Gene Vision has resulted in a part-time job at UCL contributing to research that will help with monitoring and managing eye disease through technology.
I've also developed a simple way that any optical practice can incorporate a chatbot on their website for free within minutes. This enables practices to improve their communication, engagement and bookings. All practices have to do is go to the website and it allows them to generate a piece of code which can then be copied and pasted onto their website. They are able to edit the content to suit their practice.
As a locum in North West London, work dropped off at the start of lockdown. I think it was a blessing because it allowed me to focus on my skills in technology. I could easily have complained that there was no work but, considering the opportunities I have now, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
• As told to Selina Powell.