He's been working on Sleep Dealer since then, and it's taken over a decade to complete. He finally got financing in 2005 and shot it in 2006. The film showed at Sundance, to enthusiastic reviews, and you can read our own review here. Rivera also showed a couple other short films: a ten-minute set of documentaries about the border between the U.S. and Mexico, made as part of the PBS online series Borders, and a bizarre Independence Day-esque short about the U.S. being invaded by giant flying sombreros with chili pepper rayguns. The Borders films explore the idea of borders being closed to humans, but open to imports and services. The hard part of making Sleep Dealer, for Rivera, was turning his big-picture economic story into a more personal story of two people and their relationship. "I like to think about systems, economics, the big picture, millions of pepope. To think about two people... was a real struggle for me." And these questions of the future of labor and immigration are really difficult to talk about, so "I wanted to see if science fiction was a genre where we could have this conversation." When Memo first logs into the telepresence network, you can see a huge list of languages that he chooses Spanish from. The idea, says Rivera, was to show that you could hire telepresence workers from Indonesia or China or wherever — whoever is cheapest. It's a "race to the bottom enabled by the network." Sometimes the workers get blinded by a power surge, but it's an acceptable loss.
My friend who went to the event with me had one question about the future world of Sleep Dealer: is it ever really going to get cheaper to use robots to replace individual human workers? After all, robots have already replaced workers in a factory setting, but that's usually one robot doing the work of twenty humans. Here, you have one robot doing the work of one person. Is that ever going to be cost-effective? Rivera says yes, and he actually thinks this is a possible future economic model:
Have you seen those videos of the Honda robots that can dance and play soccer and walk up and down stairs? We're in a place where robots can do, physically, most of what we can do. They can dance better than I do... but they can't make any judgements. Artifiical intelligence is not anywhere near where the robot [can think for itself]. The robot mind is like a grasshopper mind. [So I foresee a] future where the mechanical part of the robot is very sophisticated and cheap, but it needs a spirit, somebody to make a judgement, someone to communicate. [And that portion] is outsourced. I think that's actually a business model. Not today, but in a few years. i have a feeling that's potentially a reality. We are seeing that ambivalence, where that mechanical is very sophisticated, but the artifiical intelligence is retarded.Already, you have the weird juxtaposition of high technology and squalor, where ipods and other shiny gadgets are made by people who live in shantytowns, says Rivera. "It's a scifi nightmare more vivid than Mad Max." Rivera is working on two new projects right now. One is a true story based on an article in Wired magazine. The other is a science fiction film that starts in the Andes in a gold mine, with the last remaining gold seams. The gold mine will turn out to be connected to nanotechnology, because the best nanotech often uses gold fibers "because gold is such a good conductive metal." Sleep Dealer is being released in theaters in the U.S. in March 2009.