clockwork robot manicure

Need a Manicure? This Robot Will Lend You a Hand

Yep, there's a nail-painting robot that can give you a fresh mani in 10 minutes.

Frustrated with the time, effort, and money required to maintain a decent-looking manicure, Renuka Apte used to joke about how she'd invent something where she would put her hand in a contraption and when she removed them, her nails would be done. "Funny enough, that's more or less what we're doing now," Apte, the co-founder of Clockwork, says over the phone. The development of a robot that could paint your manicure wasn't only imagined out of necessity; artificial intelligence was advancing at a breakneck speed—Apte and her co-founders wanted to see how they could push the envelope themselves. "Robots are going to start interacting with humans more and more," she says. "We wanted to have a voice there."

What Is Clockwork—and How Does It Work?

Clockwork's target audience is the person who is juggling a million plates and they don't have time to do their nails on a regular basis. "Beauty services shouldn't be reserved for those who just have the time and money for them," Apte says.

The Clockwork team wanted to make the manicure process as seamless as possible. First, you drop a nail polish cartridge into the machine. ("It's kind of similar to placing a pod in an espresso machine," says Apte.) Then you place your fingers, one at a time, inside the machine. Then the robot works its magic: "The machine basically captures a bunch of pictures of your hand with two 3-D cameras and then it builds a multi-dimensional map of your fingers," Apte says. "That information is sent to the AI, and the AI determines how the robot should move in order to deposit the polish in the right places."

To make sure that the algorithm was as diverse as possible when it came to the hand and nail types, sizes, and colors that made up the formula, Clockwork's team first started by asking family and friends to send pictures of their hands. Then they invited people from Dropbox and Roman (their offices are near Clockwork's HQ in San Francisco) to try it out. And when they were fundraising, they asked investors to stop by their office and paint their nails, giving them even more data to strengthen their algorithm.

Will Clockwork Affect Nail Artists?

Christine Doan, a digital creator and a Bay Area native, told me that she's not worried that AI will take away jobs from women and people of color in the nail-artistry industry. "I think that the AI system is amazing in some aspects," she tells me, having seen the final product on the nails of friends who've tried out Clockwork before. "But it lacks the ability to perform certain tasks that a trained professional will have an eye for." There are certain aspects of the manicure process that Doan believes a robot can't catch, like capping the free edge or tapering the sidewalls of the nails.

Doan comes from a large family who makes their living in the beauty industry, and she tells me that she often has to remind them that this new technology isn't a threat to their livelihood. "We rely on a vast clientele and consistent work coming in," says Doan. "But I do think that as AI systems and machines develop, as long as there is a conscientious effort and transparency that occurs between the service provider, as well as the equipment used, there's enough space for us all to co-exist."

Plus, as Doan mentions to me, thousands of people paint their own nails every day. But there's certain things that only a nail technician can provide: detailed nail art, massages, better and safer prep to the nail plate, and nourishing treatments to improve nail health and strength.

Apte makes it clear that the goal of Clockwork isn't to eliminate anyone's means of making a living. The person who has a weekly gel nail-art appointment on the books at their local salon isn't the target audience. It's meant to be an affordable service (the manicures are priced at $8) for people who want to paint their nails more often at home but don't have the time.

Right now, Clockwork's main focus is strengthening their algorithm and making sure that they have a high-functioning, high-quality system. But there are plans to expand: "We still want to spread out beyond the Bay Area and bring this service to as many people as possible."

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