We let a robot do our makeup – and this is what happened

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Ava Welsing-Kitcher
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Stylist’s junior beauty writer Ava Welsing-Kitcher let a robot do her make-up. And the outcome was, shall we say, interesting…

There’s a contraption zooming directly towards my eyeball. It’s essentially a tiny robotic arm wielding an eyeshadow brush with a mixture of enthusiasm and, I think, slight menace. 

I watch it like a hawk each time it raises its little limb, trying to calculate exactly where it will land and whether it will render me blind if its intentions go awry. This wasn’t exactly what I’d imagined when I’d agreed to an appointment with the world’s first make-up bot. 

Before flying to Vienna for my appointment with Beautification, I’d envisaged a metallic humanoid incarnation of a cosmetics counter assistant. Or a real-life version of the Chanel make-up box Milla Jovovich holds in front of her face in The Fifth Element, emerging with pristine, cat-like eyes. 

Instead, I’m sitting at a sort of deconstructed vanity table with robotic limbs. Faceless, functional and clinical, with a pale green metal frame and acrylic surfaces, it’s definitely more minimalist than my slightly battered Ikea Hemnes unit at home. But perfection in make-up artistry wasn’t really why this robot-slash-art-installation was created. 

When they programmed Beautification, the aim of Austrian design students Maya Pindeus and Johanna Pichlbauer was to question our universal perceptions of beauty. 

“We want users to put themselves in the beauty care of robots, to experience what it feels like to delegate decisions that are usually made by themselves, to machines,” says Pindeus. “The key theme we wanted to explore was intimacy. We allow technology into a lot of aspects of our daily lives, but when it comes to cosmetics and beauty, we’re scared. We wanted to see how people would react if they allowed robots to do this very personal, daily thing.” 

While a full face of foundation or accurate liner isn’t quite in this robot’s remit yet, it does signal a change in the beauty industry (one we could only dream of a few years ago), where even items like your vanity table or the make-up counter assistant you buy your products from could, at some point, be robots.

Not only are brands including L’Oréal already using android chemists to make creams, lotions and serums in its labs, Shiseido is rolling out humanoid robots on its production lines to assemble product packaging, too.

To take things a step further, those services that we might previously have considered ‘customer-facing’ are slowly being handed over to robots as well. In Singapore, a massage bot named Emma (short for Expert Manipulative Massage Automation – catchy!) has been introduced at the NovaHealth Traditional Chinese Medicine clinic. The high-tech machine, which mimics a human’s palm and thumbs, uses sensors to measure the stiffness of a particular muscle or tendon and calculate the optimal massage.

Meanwhile, at China’s Nanjing University, a student is pioneering a specialised acupuncture robot that measures a person’s height and subcutaneous fat before calculating where and how deep to insert needles. Similar advances are being made in the fields of hairdressing and, of course, make-up application (like the one I’m trialling).

So what’s prompting this move away from personal touch towards robotic embrace?

It’s no secret that we feel busier than we ever have, and automated services – from carpet-cleaning Roombas to fridges that automatically order new groceries when stocks run low – have exploded in response. 

Why shouldn’t this extend to beauty? Research by YouGov shows the majority of us spend between 11 and 30 minutes each morning getting ready: that’s more than a week every year. If a robot can take on that daily chore for me, I’d gladly spend the extra time in bed – even though I’d find it quite a stretch to trust a robot with such a personal form of self-expression. 

Sitting at that table, while mechanised limbs work inches from my face, is an interesting experience and one that’s not entirely foolproof. I select a bold red lipstick and a particularly vibrant blue eyeshadow (actually face paint), which are loaded on to the machine, making it come alive with a loud whirr. 

A new ‘hairdresser’ component has been added especially for Stylist; the hairspray function spits a fine mist of the stuff directly into my eyes each time it completes its circuit around my head, and the lipstick rotating in front of my face is not exactly hitting its target.

I also can’t stop leaping back in my chair as any of the ‘arms’ approach me – terrified of the pain I’m sure they’re about to inflict.

Five minutes later, I resemble Pennywise from Stephen King’s IT more than some kind of futuristic version of perfection – but then, perfection isn’t what Beautification had in mind, anyway. It serves to remind me just how important individuality is in beauty.

I take a moment to consider how personal my own routine is (I prefer a winged eye; you might love lashings of highlighter – each to their own). I also enjoy the freedom of expression and how it feels to build something that’s almost artistic. But Beautification has been created with a homogeneous face as its guide, based on grids and masks used by plastic surgeons searching for the ‘ideal’ features.

Can automated beauty ever really account for our differences and preferences?

Perhaps that’s why huge tech advances are being made when it comes to food, cars and houses, compared to modest progression in the beauty sphere. Human touch is such an important part of the cosmetics and wellness industry – think the one massage therapist who knows the knots in your back like the weeds in her own garden. 

Research also attests to the benefits physical human contact can have on our health. The Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine says it carried out more than 100 studies into touch and found positive effects included faster growth in premature babies, reduced pain and improved immune systems in people with cancer. 

You can’t argue with that. Trust is a key issue here. Will we ever really truly put our faith in the machines that inspire articles about ‘Robot Rebellions’ and ‘AI Global Dominance’?

 “These sorts of headlines come about whenever there is industrial advance; people said steam engines and cars would ‘take over the world’,” counters Dr Mary Ellen Foster, a lecturer in computing science at the University of Glasgow.

But research carried out by psychologists at Oxford and Cornell universities found that people mistrust those who make decisions by calculating costs and benefits – exactly as robots and computers do. So we might find it hard to hand over something as intimate as our appearance to a droid we find a bit fishy in the first place. 

“We learn from an early age how to prepare our faces in ways that are attractive to us and to society,” says Pindeus. “To give this authority away to robots, which are often seen as inferior to humans or are laughed at, takes away part of our autonomy – and this is what we wanted to bring to light.” 

Looking at my reflection in the mirror once the Beautification robot has run its five-minute cycle is, let’s just say, disturbing. The inventors initially struggled with how to give the machine’s actions the right level of “aggression”, and sure enough, I’m sitting here like some kind of clown, a gory red gash extending from my mouth across the bottom half of my face, with chunks of lipstick across my teeth to boot. 

A trail of blue indicates where the robot has slashed at my skin, and as for my hair… a large, matted chunk at my crown appears to be defying gravity, thanks to the bountiful doses of fixing spray. I’m reminded of childhood escapades with my mother’s make-up bag, and feel some kind of bond with the robot.

I didn’t expect to feel beautiful at the end of this experiment. 

Take a look around you: we’re all different. We have asymmetrical faces, blemishes, scars, broken noses, mismatched eyebrows (the bane of my life) and cheekbones in a mountain range of shapes and sizes. We come in a vast palette of skintones, not to mention our distinctly diverse predilections and personal tastes. 

There are too many variables to ever hand over our make-up routines to a robot – unless, of course, we all strive to become identical. There are also limits to how creative a robot could ever be. 

“Sure, there are certain computer programs in existence where, if you give them a whole load of examples of something, they will create a new thing in that style,” says Dr Foster. “Train them in the complete musical works of Johann Sebastian Bach and then tell them to create something new, and they’ll create something that sounds like Bach. Is that creativity or not? It’s hard to say.” 

Automation is great, it seems, but not quite what we need when it comes to something so undeniably human as beauty and creativity – no chance of a robot creating s/s 2018’s deconstructed liner look just yet, then.

Images: Chris Floyd