Tech Trends in the Spotlight at South by Southwest Festival

Flying cars and a robot petting zoo. Mobile wallets and net neutrality. The most outlandish ideas of the future and tech trends shaping the world today will be in focus as the freewheeling South by Southwest Interactive Festival kicks off Thursday.

The annual Austin, Texas gathering has a looser reputation than bigger tech conferences like the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, even as it has become more corporate in recent years. It's a place where a Grumpy Cat appearance can generate as much excitement as the latest tech gizmo. It brought Twitter prominence in 2007 and location-sharing app Foursquare in 2009, but has since moved beyond the latest "killer app." Last year, cybersecurity took center stage as NSA leaker Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange headlined the lineup of panels and speakers.

This year top speakers will tackle how to bring ideas that might seem like science fiction to the real world. Google's Astro Teller, who heads the tech giant's X division, will discuss making some of Google's most ambitious projects, like self-driving cars or balloon-powered Internet, a reality. United Therapeutics CEO Martine Rothblatt will talk about tech innovations intersecting with artificial intelligence, immorality and the future of self. The Winklevoss twins, Tyler and Cameron, will be on hand to discuss what Bitcoin needs to do to succeed as a mainstream currency. And former vice president Al Gore will make his third appearance at the annual festival to plug for new global climate legislation that is up for a vote in December.

But aside from the big-name keynotes, festival director Hugh Forrest says the heart of the conference is the smaller panels and competitions.

"We're excited about the very strong speakers we have, but the heart of the event is really the up-and -coming people...

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