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iPads at restaurants: Can we have a side order of jobs?

September 16, 2011 |  1:13 pm

IPads at restaurants

It's a high-tech world.  It's also a high-unemployment world, especially in California.

Not to be a scaremonger, but I'm starting to think there's a connection.

On Friday, The Times reported that California's jobless rate rose to 12.1% in August, the second highest in the nation. According to the story, "California lost jobs in construction, financial activities and government."

OK, same old sad, familiar tale. But sooner or later, the economy will pick up and jobs will return, right?

Not so fast, Candide.

Consider this story from The Times' Business section Friday: "Some restaurants serve up iPads for customers to place orders." 

In the last few months, restaurants scattered around the country have installed iPads and other technologies on which customers can place orders and perform additional tasks usually handled by staff.

At Stacked in Torrance, which opened in May, iPads mounted on 60 tables enable patrons to flip through a touch screen to view pizza, burger and salad offerings. Diners can choose entrees and sides, pick out toppings, send their orders to the kitchen and divvy up the bill, all without talking to a staff person.

To pay, customers swipe credit cards through slots built into the iPad holders.

The co-founder of the restaurant, Paul Motenko, said he spent more than a year and $1 million developing the digital ordering regimen. It allowed him to open with a smaller-than-average staff, but he maintained that the hands-on system made customers feel more involved in the process.

Yep, it caught your eye too, didn't it? That "smaller-than-average staff" phrase.  That's the sound of jobs going bye-bye.

Having turned to the dark side, I then remembered a story this week from The Times' Money & Company blog: "Cornell lab prints food, says digital cuisine could change restaurants."

There are printers that can spit out 3-D model cars and others that can make paper solar panels. Next up: technology that can print food for restaurants and homes.

Cornell Creative Machines Lab, featured recently in Fast Company, has a printer that can create a scallop nugget shaped like a miniature space shuttle. The machine has made cakes that, when sliced into, reveal embedded messages.

Using edible inks such as liquid or juiced meats, the printer uses electronic blueprints and technology that can create new food textures.

The ability to print food could have significant ramifications for chefs and industrial food producers alike, according to scientists. And the average American, who spends more than 30 minutes a day preparing meals, could save more than 150 hours each year using a commercial version of the machine.

"Significant ramifications for chefs and industrial food producers alike"?  I don't know about you, but  that sounds like another way to say "you won't need as many workers."

I mean, not to be facetious, but it sure looks as though thousands of unemployed actors in Southern California are about to become unemployed waiters and waitresses too.

Fortunately, I couldn't find any stories about iRobot busboys, so starving college kids still may have a shot at work.

It's not just food services, though.  Check out this Technology blog item: "IBM's Watson supercomputer to give instant medical diagnoses."

WellPoint, the nation’s largest insurer by membership, is tapping IBM's Watson supercomputer to diagnose medical illnesses and to recommend treatment options for patients within seconds in a new system that will debut at several cancer cancers early next year.

Executives at the two companies say that Watson, best known for defeating “Jeopardy!” quiz champions on the popular television game show this year, can sift through millions of pages of data and produce diagnoses virtually on the spot.

WellPoint said the computer system will not supplant doctors but instead provide them with instant information to make better decisions to improve the quality of care and save money.

It "will not supplant doctors"?  OK, sure.  It's not as if insurance companies would be interested in cutting staff and saving money, right?

But we'd better hope doctors' jobs are safe. After all, someone is going to have be left to patronize all those restaurants featuring digital cuisine made by 3D copier "chefs" and brought to you by iPad "waiters."

What about the rest of us? Well, technology can giveth too.

Consider this item: "Get a CLOO'? App will rent your bathroom to strangers."

When you have to go, you have to go.

That's the basic philosophy behind the smartphone app CLOO', which wants urban dwellers to open their private bathrooms to strangers desperately seeking a toilet.

CLOO', short for community plus loo (plus an apostrophe mark to represent a GPS marker), aims to create a network of "member loos" from trusting, sympathetic people who will trade a few minutes in their personal facilities "for the cost of a latte," the company boasts on its website.

That's right. All is not lost.

If you're lucky enough to still have a roof over your head -- well, there's gold in your toilet. Maybe one of those doctors -- or high-tech innovators -- will be heading home from a night at iRestaurant and nature will call. 

And now it's your turn, budding bathroom entrepreneur.

Heck, maybe you could even put an iPad in there and charge by the minute.


Restaurant will have to dish on nutrition

Food poisoning: America's homegrown threat

Interactive: U.S. unemployment rate by state

 --Paul Whitefield

Photo: Customers navigate the iPad ordering system at Stacked restaurant in Torrance. Credit: Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times

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