It took about 10 minutes and only cost $7.99.

A robot gave me a manicure last week.

Let me stop you before you envision a bipedal humanoid carefully dipping a brush into a bottle and lacquering my nails. Instead, the experience felt more like inserting my hand into a 3D printer.

Cameras inside an oversized microwave-like purple box scanned each fingernail. Then a small tube of purple-gray polish that I had loaded into a front-facing compartment like a printer cartridge started “painting” my nails one by one in a circular pattern. But the tube only started painting after I clearly said, “Ready” — or hit a button on the touchscreen — with my hand in position, making sure to keep still. It wasn’t even painting as much as calculated squirting, since there wasn’t a brush.

When robots take over your beauty routine.

When robots take over your beauty routine. Credit: Valentin Mahé-Duverger / TechSkylight

After about 10 minutes of inserting and re-inserting my fingers into the machine, my fingertips were neatly and consistently polished. All for under $8.

The process reminded me of those key-copying machines at home improvement stores, where you stick in your key and after some noise and moving parts, you have a new copy. Instead, the key was my finger, and the big box was one of two robots from the robotics company Clockwork.

Clockwork’s “lab,” a storefront in San Francisco’s hip Marina District, is the first known nail salon to feature any robot nail techs. It’s something of a pop-up for at least the next few months as the company tests the machines. Appointments are booked solid into July.

This robotic experience wasn’t devoid of human contact. Far from it. Two Clockwork employees, including the recently hired director of business development and operations, Tracy Turhan, welcomed guests, helped us select from 10 color options (ranging from dark reds to bright blues and greens), and explained how everything worked. If any customers came in with an old polish, these two helped remove it.

Near the two humans, the two Clockwork machines sat on tables across from each other. Even though the machines’ screens clearly explain what to do, taking you through each step on how to position your hands and fingers, some guidance from the humans helped things run more smoothly. For instance, when I sat waiting for the tube to start painting but hadn’t pushed my finger far enough into the hand slot, the humans gave a helpful nudge or suggestion: “Just a bit more until you hear the click.” The robot doesn’t have that personal touch.

With 10 fingers, you have enough time to get into the rhythm and cadence of the robotic dance. By the time I inserted my last pinky into the soft plastic strap used to keep each finger in the right spot and grabbed the hand rest that I clicked into place for each finger, I was already envisioning coming back for another manicure. I was impressed, not just with the low price but also the efficiency. It was faster, so exacting, and more consistent, with no stroke lines compared to a traditional manicure.

Eventually, I would be a pro, I imagined, with no need for a human to remove the paint for a re-do as I needed on one of my smudged thumbs after the robot painted it. I’d be in and out within roughly 10 minutes, not including the time to let my nails air dry. The next time I wouldn’t be distracted by the novelty of the machine and human-free process. I’d also know how to position my hands so that my painted thumb wouldn’t nick the side of the hand rest in the future.

This is a bare-bones manicure: no pedicures, gel paint, acrylics, designs, or French tips. There’s a single coat of polish, and no nail clipping, trimming, cuticle removal, buffing, or filing. And there are no hand massages with lots of lotion. The nails you came in with will look and feel the same on the way out, just with some color on them.

Enjoy some robotic pampering.

Enjoy some robotic pampering. Credit: Valentin Mahé-Duverger / TechSkylight

Ten fingers later, I'm done.

Ten fingers later, I’m done. Credit: Valentin Mahé-Duverger / TechSkylight

But the whole thing cost just $7.99, pre-paid online or at the store through a digital wallet. No tip. No awkward money exchange. No stilted small talk. And this is where it gets uncomfortable. It was almost too easy, too fast, too efficient, too cheap. (The workers assured me that each manicure uses a high-quality, though unnamed, polish.)

You’re lucky to find a traditional manicure in a city like San Francisco for $15, not including a tip. It takes time (about an hour) and requires a person to deal with your fingers and nail clippings and the grime underneath your nails. It can be awkward to pay someone to pamper you for this purely aesthetic, unnecessary beauty ritual.

But the nail industry is also a major job source, even if it’s a dangerous workplace, especially for undocumented workers. In New York City alone, there are more than 4,000 salons, according to the New York Nail Salon Workers Association. During the COVID pandemic, as many as 80 percent of nail salon workers in the city didn’t qualify for federal assistance even though most salons shut down, permanently closed, or drastically cut hours, as Allure magazine reported.

Now salons are reopening, and there’s even more competition — from a contact-free nail technician that doesn’t want your tip and isn’t poisoned by salon fumes and chemicals. Automation is coming for more and more jobs in trucking, manufacturing, retail, and healthcare: as many as 20 million by 2030, according to a study from Oxford Economics. For the beauty industry, robots have typically been more involved in cosmetics production as opposed to providing services. More robots interacting with customers could make nail work healthier by taking the brunt of workplace risks, and yet, what happens to human workers when their jobs are taken over by robot techs?

Clockwork’s CEO Renuka Apte, a Georgia Tech computer science alum with a background in engineering, doesn’t intend to run nail salons out of business or replace human nail workers. Instead, the Bay Area-based company views itself as complementary, for in-between appointments. In the New York Times, the CEO called her service “manicures.” Clockwork claims it could be incorporated into a salon, working alongside nail workers for touch-ups and quick re-colorings. The lab location in SF is more about proof-of-concept than a long-term salon setup.

Ideally, Clockwork wants other businesses (whether they be traditional beauty salons or apartment buildings looking to offer better amenities) to lease or buy its manicure machines.

Pick a color for the robo-manicure.

Pick a color for the Robo-manicure. Credit:

Clockwork —formerly known as Marionette AI when it first formed as a beauty tech company in 2017 — recently emerged out of stealth mode after raising its first round of $3 million from Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian’s venture firm, Initialized Capital. Now it’s anything but stealthy.

TikTok’s, Instagrams, YouTube videos, and selfies of Robo-painted nails are peppering the internet and blowing up discussions about our inevitable robot takeover. The robotic nail salon even made it onto a recent episode of NPR’s weekend quiz show, “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me” as a part of a limerick clue: “When your fingers come out, they’ll look so hot…manicures done by a robot.”

Another nail tech is popping up, but that’s more focused on the at-home experience, like the ManiMe app that ships custom 3D-printed nail stickers after photographing your hands. Or the Nimble home manicure machine with a robotic arm that brushes on polish; it’s already fully backed on Kickstarter.

A steady stream of passersby stopped by during my Friday afternoon appointment to check out what was behind the sign in the window that read, “The First Robot Manicure for Unstoppable Humans.

The company keeps collected camera footage of your fingernails for about 24 hours, but that’s to train and improve the machine-learning algorithm. As the bot made its public debut less than two months ago, it’s still learning more about different types of nail shapes, sizes, and lengths. Each day Clockwork engineers overview what mistakes and issues came up from the “lab” appointments, like when a nail needed to be repainted because of a missing spot or uneven painting. Data from my manicure should help with future shorter nails after the machine glossed a small smudge onto my fingertips beyond the nails.

Maybe next it’ll learn how to do pedicures.


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