Columnist Wil McCarthy deciphers the cyberpunk science of Sleep Dealer

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Writer-director Alex Rivera has made some minor indie films before, but nothing for theatrical release. Who could have guessed that Sleep Dealer, his first really ambitious project, a low-budget cross-border production set entirely in Mexico, would be a double winner at the 2008 Sundance film festival, and score other awards besides?

Released only in New York and Los Angeles and grossing just $35K in its first two weeks, it's hardly a raging commercial success. Distributors clearly saw this as a movie for the coastal elites, not the workaday masses, which is particularly ironic considering the film's content. But who knows? Maybe this is all a tactic for creating buzz.

In the future, it seems that immigration between the U.S. and Mexico has been all but eliminated. The border is a wall more imposing than the Berlin Wall or the Great Wall of China in their respective heydays, and in place of immigrant labor, farming and construction and other manual work in the U.S. is performed by telerobots operated from overseas datacenters, of which Mexican border towns like Tijuana are major hubs.

Connecting to the network requires medically implanted neural "nodes", i.e., the jacks and plugs of classic cyberpunk, which of course can also be used for communication, entertainment, sexual gratification, and a host of other things of varyingly dubious savoriness. For what it's worth, the idea that factory labor could be performed this way—and that the technology could and would be abused—dates back at least as far as Samuel R. Delany's book Nova (1968). Delany also predicted the resulting gulf between the neural haves and have-nots.

But Rivera brings a distinctively picante flavor to it all, with neon-gloomy sweatshops of staffed by exploited third-worlders who can only dream of tasting the first-world prosperity they're helping (remotely) to build. It's the seamy underside of the Global Village, where people—the ultimate origin of all wealth and knowledge—are less mobile and less connected with the fruits of their labors than ever. But that's just the backdrop; in the foreground are the senoritas and caballeros of village life, the hackqueros of international data intrigue, the mendingos and cantineros of the big city, and the ever-present dreaming of Del Norte, the increasingly distant land of opportunity.

Technically speaking, there's not much to disagree with here. We already have telerobots nearly as sophisticated as the ones in the movie, as demonstrated (for example) by the fully functional telesurgery rig made by researchers at the University of Washington. Direct neural connection for electronic devices has been demonstrated in cochlear implants and bionic eyes, and two-way control and sensory feedback has been used in advanced prosthetic arms for over five years now. There are also cruder but less invasive techniques that involve scanning the brain from outside the skull. In fact, this technology is about to go mass-market with the release of the Emotiv game control headset, capable of sensing emotional states, facial expressions and "conscious thoughts and intent." Put it all together and you've got a device that can interpret dozens of different commands issued directly by the mind. Seriously!

So it isn't much of a stretch to imagine controlling complex robots over the Internet. Of course, if they're going to have decent eyes and ears, the connection will need a fair bit of bandwidth—probably more than our current network architecture can support. Too, if the robots are going to operate in real time and without a lot of herky-jerky movement disorders, the latency of the connection will need to be small. In other words, when a controller moves his arm, the robot needs to respond within a small fraction of a second, or the operator will tend to overcompensate and then overcorrect and generally make a mess of things. When a control system has long built-in delays between command and response (e.g., the steering on a giant oil tanker), the only way for an operator to maintain control is to move verrrry slowly. And even then mistakes happen, as every major oil spill in modern history shows. Fortunately, both problems have the same solution: putting the robotic work site and the human data center as close together as possible, with a dedicated connection between them to maximize the volume of data transfer and minimize delay. No satellite bounce, OK? And with the story's focus on border towns, this appears to be exactly what Rivera had in mind.

Throw in some additional, quasi-original touches like direct neural blogging, cybermercenaries, and Tijuana as the improbable "City of Tomorrow," and you've got a recipe for some fine science fiction. Is Sleep Dealer a smart thriller? A love story? An aspirational tale about the American dream as seen from the outside? Well, yes. It's also a cautionary tale that extrapolates current trends in globalism, outsourcing, user-created content and the invasion of privacy inherent in reality TV. Mostly, though, it's a political commentary of the sort that can really only be done in science fiction, where the problems of today stand out in the glare of a not-too-distant future where, unaddressed, they've swollen all out of proportion. If Aldous Huxley, Gene Roddenberry and William Gibson ran off together and had a Mexican love child, it might look a lot like this.

So what's all the fuss about? What exactly is the source of our future troubles? Even today, Fed Ex and air travel, the Internet and satellite TV have united the world; goods and money and information flow more freely now than at any time in human history, to such an extent that even the soberest scholars have begun to ask whether nation-states are becoming obsolete. But Rivera reminds us that the physical borders between nations still exist. In fact, they appear to be strengthening in the face of economic envy, as the people of the Third World become ever more aware of just what they're missing on the other side of La Frontera.

Rivera seems to be telling us that even terrorism—another global enterprise very much on the rise—is rooted in economic injustice, as indeed all conflicts must be. I'm not sure I agree with that, or with much of the rest of Sleep Dealer's message, which seems to deny both the Third World benefits of globalism and its negative effects on wealthy countries. Overall, the shrinking world has made it easier and easier for U.S. and European companies to export jobs overseas, and harder and harder for them to create domestic jobs at any kind of competitive rate. Money knows no borders, and the more true this is, the more likely capital is to squirt into the relative vacuum of poorer countries.

But if the characters in the movie think they have it rough now, just wait until the relentless march of progress replaces those telerobots with fully autonomous models who don't need a remote operator to perform their tasks. At first we might see one worker controlling two or three robots, then supervising whole platoons of them and eventually turning over the whole job site to a programmer or coordinator and letting the robots themselves run the show. And then where will these sweatshop workers be?

Still, Rivera's point is elegantly made, and does not come at the expense of entertainment, so one does not walk away from this movie feeling too terribly harangued. Also, while hardly perfect, Sleep Dealer boasts nearly-there production values, a competent score and special effects and a script that is really quite amazing for a debut film, or any indie film, for that matter. In fact—don't hate me for saying this—it may be the first Mexican movie that was ever worth the time and money and attention of a global audience. Certainly it's the first science fiction movie I can think of that's set in Latin America, unless you count Spy Kids, which I don't. Anyway, while the distributors didn't see fit to cut most of us in on this very limited theatrical release, you should look for it when it comes to cable. Or direct neural interface, I suppose, although we're all familiar with the dangers of that.

Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia (en.wikipedia.org): Nova (novel)
www.rottentomatoes.com: Sleep Dealer
Sleep Dealer official movie site: http://www.sleepdealer.com/Landing.html
The Internet Movie Database: Sleep Dealer
"Space Age To Surgery Equipment", Society Medical News Blog, Medicineworld.Org, 23 August 2006
Direct neural sensory feedback and control of a prosthetic arm, Dhillon, G.S.; Horch, K.W., Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering, IEEE Transactions on, Volume 13, Issue 4, Dec. 2005

Wil McCarthy is a rocket guidance engineer, robot designer, nanotechnologist, science-fiction author and occasional aquanaut. He has contributed to three interplanetary spacecraft, five communication and weather satellites, a line of landmine-clearing robots and some other "really cool stuff" he can't tell us about. His short writings have graced the pages of Analog, Asimov's, Wired, Nature and other major publications, and his book-length works include the New York Times notable Bloom, Amazon "Best of Y2K" The Collapsium and most recently, To Crush the Moon. His acclaimed nonfiction book, Hacking Matter, is now available as a free download.