What's a robot manicure really like? Quick, cheap, and guilt-inducing.

Last week, a robot gave me a manicure.Before you imagine a bipedal humanoid carefully placing a brush in a bottle and lacquering their nails, let me tell you something. The experience was more like inserting my hands into a 3D printer.Each fingernail was scanned by cameras inside a large purple box that looked like a microwave. A small tube of purple-gray nail polish, which I had placed in a front-facing compartment that looked like a printer cartridge, began "painting" my nails in a circular fashion. The tube started painting only after I said "Ready" or hit the touchscreen. My hand was in the right position and the button clicked. Since there wasn't any brush, it wasn't painting at all.Robots can take over your beauty regimen. Credit: Valentin Mah Duverger / MashableAfter approximately 10 minutes of inserting my fingers and re-inserting them into the machine, I was able to get my fingertips perfectly polished. All this for less than $8It reminded me of the key-copying machines found at home improvement stores. You simply insert your key and, after some noise, you get a new copy. The key was actually my finger and the big box was one from Clockwork robotics.The first nail salon with robot techs is Clockwork's Lab, a shopfront in San Francisco's Marina District. The machine testing phase will take place in a temporary location for the next few months. Bookings are solid through July.The robotic experience was not without human contact. It was far from it. Tracy Torhan (the newly hired director of business development & operations at Clockwork), welcomed guests and helped them choose from 10 colors. She also explained how everything works. These two were able to remove any old polish from customers who came in with it.The two Clockwork machines, which were located near the humans, sat on tables opposite each other. The screens of the Clockwork machines clearly explained what you needed to do. They also showed you how to position your fingers and hands. However, the human guidance made things more fluid. When I was waiting for the tube's start, but didn't push my finger enough into the slot, the humans offered a suggestion or nudge: "Just a little more until you hear the click." That personal touch is not provided by the robot.You have 10 fingers so you can get into the rhythm of the robot dance. When I had inserted my pinky into the soft plastic strap that holds each finger in place, and then grabbed the hand rest for each finger, I already envisioned coming back for another manicure. The efficiency and low cost of the manicure were both impressive to me. This manicure was quicker, more precise, and had fewer stroke lines than a traditional manicure.I imagined that I would eventually be a professional, and no one would need to remove the paint from my thumbs, which had become smudged by the robot's painting. I would be done in about 10 minutes. That doesn't include the time it took to dry my nails. I wouldn't be distracted again by the novelty of the machine or the human-free process. I would also know how to position myself so that my thumb doesn't touch the side of the hand rest.This manicure is completely bare-bones. There are no pedicures or gel paints, acrylics, French tips, or designs. You only need one coat of polish. There is no nail trimming, trimming, cuticle removal or buffing. There are no lotion-laden hand massages. Your nails will still look and feel the exact same as when you come out with them, but with some color.You can enjoy some robotic pampering. Credit: Valentin Mah Duverger / Mashable Ten fingers later, it's done. Credit: Valentin MahDuverger/mashableThe entire thing was only $7.99. You can pay online or in store using a digital wallet. There was no tip. No awkward money exchange. No small talk. This is where it gets awkward. It was almost too simple, too fast and efficient, as well as too expensive. (I was assured by workers that every manicure used a high-quality polish, even though it was not named.A traditional manicure can be found in San Francisco for only $15. This does not include a tip. It takes time (about one hour), and you need someone to take care of your hands, nails and remove any dirt or grime. This is a purely cosmetic, unneeded beauty ritual that can be uncomfortable.The nail industry can be a great source of employment, even though it is a hazardous work environment for many, especially undocumented workers. According to the New York Nail Salon Workers Association, there are over 4,000 salons in New York City. According to Allure magazine, as many 80 percent of the nail salon workers in New York City were affected by the COVID pandemic and didn't qualify under federal assistance despite the fact that most salons had shut down or been permanently closed during the epidemic, Allure reported.Salons are now reopening. And there is more competition from a contactless nail technician who doesn't want to touch your nails and isn't poisoned with salon fumes or chemicals. According to an Oxford Economics study, automation is expected to increase the number of jobs in manufacturing, retail, healthcare, trucking and trucking. Robots are more often involved in the production of cosmetics than providing services. Robots could be more involved in nail care by reducing workplace risks and making it easier for customers to interact with them. But what happens when human workers are replaced by robot techs?Renuka Apte is Clockwork's CEO. She is a Georgia Tech alum in computer science with a background as an engineer and doesn't plan to take over nail salons or replace them. The Bay Area-based company sees itself as complementary and can be used in between appointments. The CEO of Clockwork described her service as mini-cures in the New York Times. She claims that it could be integrated into a salon alongside nail technicians for quick touch-ups or re-colorings. The SF lab is more of a proof-of-concept location than a permanent salon setup.Clockwork would love to have other businesses, whether they are traditional beauty salons or apartments looking for better amenities, lease or purchase its manicure machines.Choose a color to use for the robo-manicure. Credit:Clockwork, formerly Marionet AI, was founded in 2017 as a beauty technology company. It recently emerged from stealth mode having raised its initial round of $3million from Initialized Capital, Alexis Ohanian's venture capital firm. It's not stealthy anymore.The internet is abuzz with selfies and robo-painted nails via TikToks and YouTube videos as well as Instagrams and YouTube videos. A robot-operated nail salon made it to a recent episode on NPR's Weekend Quiz Show, "Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me". It was part of a limerick clue that said, "When your fingers come off, they'll look so hot...manicures by a robot."There are other nail tech companies popping up but they're more focused on at-home experiences. ManiMe, for example, sends custom 3D-printed stickers to your nails after you take a photo of your hands. The Nimble home manicure system with a robotic arm to apply polish; it is already 100% funded on Kickstarter.During my Friday afternoon appointment, a steady stream of people stopped by to look at the sign that said "The First Robot Manicure For Unstoppable Humans"The company stores your fingernail camera footage for 24 hours. This is to help train and improve its machine-learning algorithm. The bot's public debut was less than two months ago. It is still learning about different nail shapes, sizes, lengths, and lengths. Every day, Clockwork engineers review what errors and problems were made during "lab" appointments. For example, when a nail was missing a spot or had uneven paint. After the machine left a tiny smudge on my fingers, data from my manicure will help me plan for shorter nails in the future.Perhaps it will learn to do pedicures next.