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Tech luminaries swap ideas on the future

Conference prompts dozens of influential thinkers to share visions for next big things in tech, outsourcing, space travel and more.

Big thinkers in San Diego this week plan to figure out when we'll be taking vacations in space or developing new sources of energy, in between talks on robots and supercomputers.

The Future in Review conference collects dozens of famous and influential speakers from the technology, political, venture capital and scientific worlds who present their visions of the short-term future, focusing on the next three to five years. Scheduled to appear are tech CEOs such as Michael Dell, Symantec's John Thompson and Qualcomm's Paul Jacobs. Also making appearing will be Azim Premji, chairman of Indian outsourcing company Wipro, blogosphere natives Dave Winer and Dan Gillmor, and science-fiction author Vernor Vinge.

Mark Anderson, a former writer for Fortune and the chairman of the conference, is responsible for putting together the roster. "People say you can't predict the future, but you can," he said in an interview prior to the conference

Anderson's a busy guy. In addition to putting on the Future in Review conference, he writes and edits a newsletter called Strategic News Service, manages a technology-in-education consortium called Project Inkwell, and presides over the Orca Relief Citizens' Alliance, saving the whales in his spare time.

"You can't make good technology predictions if you only look at technology."
--Mark Anderson
chairman, Future in Review

The conference manages to be both easygoing and fast-moving at the same time, which explains how Anderson has managed to attract such a star-studded list of attendees, said Sidney Rittenberg, founder of Rittenberg Associates and an expert on China. Rittenberg plans to discuss how the U.S. needs to carefully manage its relationships with China, Japan, Taiwan and India, which "are going to be the keys in the advance of the high-tech industry for the foreseeable future," he said in an interview prior to the conference.

"Mark has built a community of people having an ongoing conversation," said Bill Janeway, vice chairman of Warburg Pincus, who will also be speaking during the conference. Influential people like this conference because Anderson exposes them to interesting topics presented by experts in their fields and allows feedback, comments and even criticism, he said.

Anderson wants to leave attendees with a broader sense of the world outside of the tech industry. "We're really looking at making predictions here, and you can't make good technology predictions if you only look at technology," he said. Technology topics dominate the agenda, with sessions on space flight, nanotechnology and robots, but Anderson also reserved time for sessions on financial modeling and the threat from bird flu.

High on the agenda this year will be the ongoing debate about supplying technology to developing nations. Quentin Stafford-Fraser, the executive director of Ndiyo, will present the project's plan for connecting villages in Africa through very inexpensive Linux thin clients, rather than using the low-cost PC model proposed by companies like Intel and AMD, as well as organizations like One Laptop Per Child.

"What's not smart is that someone who makes a dollar a year will spend a hundred dollars on something that can be stolen or broken," Anderson said. Dumb, inexpensive devices like mobile phones that can be easily replaced and connected to a more powerful server might be a better way to get billions of the world's poor online, he said.