Shockers, Wildcats, And Explorers

Tomorrow night Ohio State will continue the NCAA Tournament by playing in the West regionals in Los Angeles.  Four teams — the Wildcats, the Shockers, the Explorers, and the Buckeyes — will vie for one coveted spot in the Final Four.  So, the regional features ferocious felines, hard-working wheat harvesters, intrepid adventurers, . . . and poisonous nuts.  I’m rooting for the nuts, of course.

We’re to the point in the season where every team still playing is very good, and very scary.  The Buckeyes’ first opponent, Arizona, certainly fits that bill.  For years, Arizona has been one of the premier programs in college basketball.  This year the Wildcats, seeded sixth in the West, are 27-7 and crushed their first two opponents in the NCAA Tournament.  They are led by three players averaging more than 10 points a game —  guards Mark Lyons and Nick Johnson and forward Solomon Hill — and have lots of size on the inside.  Equally important during high-drama tournament games, Arizona has a number of seniors on its roster who can be expected to provide steady leadership during the high-stress moments.  Arizona’s talented and deep roster appears to present a number of match-up problems for Ohio State.  To top things off, the Wildcats’ coach, Sean Miller, is a Thad Matta protege who knows Ohio State’s coach well, and Arizona will have a home court advantage of sorts by playing in neighboring California.  All told, I think Arizona will pose an enormous challenge for the Buckeyes.

The other game pits two teams that have nothing to lose, because no one expected them to get this far.  LaSalle, which had a “play-in” game, has already won three games in the Tournament, including squeakers over Kansas State and Ole Miss.  Wichita State, on the other hand, pulverized Pitt and then upset top-ranked Gonzaga.  Expect both teams to be playing loose and with reckless abandon; their game should be fun to watch.

The Buckeyes’ game, on the other hand, won’t be fun to watch for those of us who are true fans.  We’ll be seriously into it, with every Buckeye bucket a cause for celebration and every Arizona score like a hard punch to the gut.  I’ll watch with angst and adrenalin because I’ve truly enjoyed this season of OSU basketball, and I don’t want it to end just yet.  Let’s go, Bucks!

The Robotic Incursion

There’s a new robot out there called Baxter.  Created by Rethink Robotics, Baxter has a humanoid torso, two robotic arms, and a face-like display screen.

None of that is especially ground-breaking, but Baxter offers more.  According to his website, Baxter is designed to work cheek-by-jowl with humans, cheerfully doing the endlessly repetitive jobs that used to drive former assembly-line workers nuts.  Baxter’s “head” is equipped with 360-degree sonar and a camera to allow him to detect humans.  Baxter also has “behavior-based intelligence” and gizmos in his arms that “feel” when he bumps into objects — or people.  The website also says Baxter is easily programmed and integrated into the workforce.

Oh, and here’s the kicker:  Baxter costs only $22,000.  That’s less than the salaries of most industrial workers.  And Baxter doesn’t require employers to worry about absenteeism or tardiness, he doesn’t take sick days or file workers compensation lawsuits, he doesn’t need to be insured or provided with a pension or vacation days, and he won’t steal from the supply room, grouse about the boss at the break table, or try to unionize the workplace.  Is it any wonder that Baxter has been greeted by great sales to the manufacturing industry?

Baxter is marketed as “a compelling alternative to low-cost offshoring for manufacturers of all sizes.”   That is, you can buy Baxter and keep your plant in Dayton, Joliet, or Scranton rather than moving production capacity to China, because when you factor in shipping costs, customs duties, and other offshore expenses — to say nothing of bad PR — Baxter is competitive with those low-cost alternatives.  Of course, Baxter also will be taking away American assembly line jobs, but they were likely gone, anyway.  At least the jobs of providing maintenance for a workforce of Baxters, and the white-collar jobs related to selling and shipping the goods Baxter manufactures, will stay in the U.S.A.

Baxter is just one example of the robotic incursion into the American workforce that is already here and that will become more apparent with each passing year.  Robotics has long been part of the manufacturing world, and now it is primed to move into the service industry.  One day soon you’ll walk into a fast-food restaurant and be surprised when a Baxter-like bot takes your order, prepares your cheeseburger and fries, and hands it to you with a touch-screen smile.