In the future, it will be possible to cool the atmosphere by injecting clouds with sea water to make them reflect more sunlight.

That's just one tech prediction from Amy Webb, founder of the the Future Today Institute (and Inc. columnist).

Webb, who's also a professor at New York University's Stern School of Business, unveiled her annual Tech Trends Report on Saturday at the SXSW festival in Austin. This is the 12th year Webb has published the report, which predicts short and long-term trends across a variety of industries.

Here are some of the other trends Webb's report highlighted, ranked in general order from most imminent to most far-out.

1. Predictive machine vision 

Researchers at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory have trained an artificial intelligence system to predict human behavior, like whether two people are about to hug, kiss, shake hands, or high five. "This research will someday enable robots to more easily navigate human environments--and to interact with us humans by taking cues from our own body language," Webb writes. That could make them especially useful in helping people operate machinery or work in labs and operating rooms. The MIT bots were trained by watching episodes of "The Office," however, so it's unclear whether Michael Scott's behavior is more or less predictable than a real-life human.

2. Cyber risk insurance

Hacks can be costly to businesses. So it makes sense that in recent years more insurance companies have begun offering coverage for security-related expenses like liability and data recovery costs. Webb predicts the trend will go even further to include more protection against hacks, such as reimbursing revenue that's lost while a company is handcuffed by an attack or repairing reputational damage that occurs as a result of it. Underwriting policies will be a challenge, though, since it will likely require getting businesses to agree to provide an awful lot of access to their infrastructure.

3. Drone surveillance

It's well known at this point that law enforcement and the military use drones for surveillance, but the number of private-sector customers is growing. When combined with machine learning software, Webb writes, drones can identify people and track them at concerts and amusement parks or as they drive on highways, then provide useful data about their behaviors. Clearly, though, there are thorny ethics and privacy issues at play with this one.

4. Solar highways 

They've been considered something of a holy grail in the solar space for some time--imagine if all that black asphalt could produce green energy? A few much-hyped projects in France and the U.S. have failed to make serious progress toward scalability, due largely to the panels' inefficiency and lack of durability. Webb points out that in China, where roads are made of a harder form of concrete, state-owned construction firm Qilu Transportation is building a highway coated with paper-thin solar panels that can endure the 45,000 cars that travel over it each day. 

5. Flying taxis

They're not as far off as you might think. Flying taxi technology "is accelerating and reaching an inflection point where proof of concept designs are beginning to become viable," Webb writes. Uber is designing flying aircraft that can take off and land vertically and travel 200 miles per hour with 60 miles of range. Of course, you might consider that to be closer to a helicopter than a car, but if you can travel across town 1,000 feet above rush hour gridlock, you won't really care what it's called. 

6. Smart dust

Scientists at the University of California-Berkeley have already figured out how to create microscopic computers that can send and receive data, while another team in Germany 3-D printed lenses the size of a grain of sand. Those kinds of technologies could be used to study the atmopshere or measure air quality, or to replace endoscopies--just swallow some smart dust, and your doctor can take a look at your insides. 

7. Artificial trees

One of the many reasons deforestation is bad: Trees naturally scrub atmosphere-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Scientists at Columbia University are developing plastic trees that can pull CO2 from the air--and so far, they do so 1,000 times more effectively than real ones. Of course, the world isn't saved yet. Not only will the technology have to be developed further and refined, but there also will need to be a financial incentive for a company to deploy it. One possibility: Selling the stored carbon to manufacturers that can turn it into carbon nanofibers or plastics.

Published on: Mar 9, 2019