AI: threat or friend? |

4 mins

AI: threat or friend?

There’s no doubt that the rise of artificial intelligence will continue to impact the beauty industry but could it ever truly replace the services element?, asks Hellen Ward

Much has been written about artificial intelligence (AI) recently and just how much it might impact all of our lives – and not in the dim and distant future, but imminently.

Mo Gawdat is the former chief business officer of Google X and his podcasts on the subject, as well as his fascinating book Scary Smart, paint a picture of just what the world could look like in a very short space of time – utopia or dystopia? When you listen to Gawdat, he’s right, it’s quite scary. Artificial intelligence could take over most human jobs in time, with machines rapidly becoming far cleverer than Einstein, making people, to all intents and purposes, redundant.

He paints a picture of a future in which people are sitting around campfires in forests, living their self-sufficient best lives. Quite how they will pay for it, I’m not sure. Quite what careers are left to monetise, I don’t know. Gawdat insists that AI gains its data from our behaviour, and if we immediately realise this and ensure we behave with manners and grace then it has the potential to learn the very best of human characteristics, not the Twitter-brigade trolling that it’s picking up it’s “humanisation” from now. Such learnings are shaping up to have a very nasty impact on our future.

But will this redundant lifestyle truly make people happy? What with the emergence of 15-minute cities and net-zero targets, there are those who believe a more sinister element is at play when it comes to controlling human behaviour. Are “they” trying to trap us into a Wall-E type existence – Disney’s 2008 futuristic portrayal of a world where people were too morbidly obese to move? What seemed so far-fetched just a few short years ago now feels all too possible. Trapped in our homes, with drones delivering food and consumables so we don’t have any need to leave or desire to move – was this what lockdowns were preparing us for?

As much as I love the city, I adore the countryside and the beach, so being a prisoner within my neighbourhood could not be any more horrific to me. Travelling to foreign climes, venturing out of where I usually live, being with people, socialising and shopping, they are all what I plan to do in my retirement – the retirement I choose. No restrictions.

Industry impacts

Looking at how AI might impact us in general is all very well, but what about how it will play out in our industry? How will AI affect beauty and hairdressing? Research suggests all the obvious benefits; computer-generated analysis, personalised product recommendations and even the perfect skincare or make-up colour. From chatbots booking appointments to virtual reality letting clients try out new make-up and hair looks, our industry will be touched by AI. But when it comes to the service, the practical element, what then?

When I chose to do a hairdressing apprenticeship, I remember some of my older relatives trotting out the same line: “People will always need their hair cut. It’s a job for life!” Back then, with the 1970s three-day week still fresh in people’s minds, fear of redundancy and recession was the key driver. Finding a career that was bullet-proof was the main objective.

So, in the 2030s, which elements of our jobs will AI take over? It’s hard to predict. But I can’t really imagine that any robot could ever compare with the healing hands of a top-notch massage therapist, or the magic touch of a professional facialist. Artificial intelligence may be able to prescribe, consult, book and recommend, but is that any substitute for the personal touch? The wisdom and experience of a seasoned professional? The application expertise of a specialist?

Safe haven

Some careers will be entirely obliterated by AI, indisputably. But ours? I think we have a unique niche. The more the world becomes robotic, and the more limited human contact is, hopefully the more in demand we will become.

For those of us who have spent their entire careers championing the industry we love, I don’t need to remind you of just what elements of our work matter most to our clients. It’s not just about expert treatment and services, it’s the human, soft skills that our customers love. In an increasingly controlled and faceless world, human contact, compassion and empathy will have more and more value.

"In an INCREASINGLY ROBOTIC AND CONTROLLED faceless world, HUMAN CONTACT, compassion and empathy will have MORE AND MORE VALUE

The chairside manner has always been a critical element to a therapist’s success and a vital part of what it takes to excel in our sector, and I think its currency is set to soar.

We joke that we aren’t just beauty therapists, we are more like mental health therapists in how we empathise with our clients. Couple that with a skill set that no robot could compete with, and I think we just might be OK.

Hellen Ward is managing director of Richard Ward Hair & Metrospa in London and co-founder of Salon Employers Association (SEA).

This article appears in July 2023

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July 2023
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