Why Today's College Students Will Save the World

Every wave of information technology has its power users. These are people who are passionate about the technology, who push the envelope on its use far beyond the "design specs," integrate it totally into their work and business lives and define the killer applications for mainstream adoption.

The Mainframe wave had its "high priests" with white lab coats and punch cards, the Minicomputer wave its nerdy scientists and engineers, the Personal Computer wave its financial spreadsheet wizards and desktop publishing whizzes and the Web its HTML gurus. We are now entering the Mobil Web wave and its power users are already abundantly clear: today's college students.

The impact of information and communication technology on all of our lives has already been immense, removing almost all boundaries of space and time and literally transforming how we search for anything, shop for everything and socialize with everyone. But in the hands of this generation of college students its reach has been nothing less than extraordinary.

Born digital natives, today's college students naturally and deftly employ all the tools of the Mobile Web: search, social media, email, texting, tweeting, blogging, web services, mobile apps and even massive multi-player games. Students operate seamlessly across multiple (often incompatible) devices; multi-task effortlessly; troubleshoot like IT pros; create and share their own multi-media content; and securely manage exponentially exploding volumes of personal data, links and social connections.

The Mobile Web has been pushed to the limit by college students in order to seize control of their incredibly complex lives: both academic and social, inside the classroom and extra-curricular, including friends and family, within the gates of the campus and across the world and all of this 24/7/365.

College students' mastery of the Mobile Web is an incredible phenomenon to observe, perhaps the greatest manifestation yet of the power of information and communication technology to change our lives. This is why I believe that today's college students will save it.

Let me explain.

While each new wave of technology has put increasing power into the hands of people, there still persists a fundamental asymmetry between the "high priests" of society (doctors, bankers, scientists, politicians, professors, etc) and ordinary citizens. This asymmetry has caused our major societal systems -- designed for hierarchic authority and control of information -- to fail disastrously as the modern world has become increasingly complex and decentralized.

Humanity now faces seemingly irreversible crises in health, education and the environment; and trust in business and government to fix these has totally eroded. It is abundantly clear that the usual top down solutions will no longer work. This is not a political statement since no political philosophy -- left, right or middle -- can solve this fundamental structural problem that besets our society.

I believe that the best hope for overcoming the challenges that face humanity today is a technology enabled "bottom up revolution" that empowers ordinary people to seize control of their lives. This includes not just searching, shopping and socializing but ultimately control over the most fundamental aspects of our lives: health, wealth and happiness.

The good news is that the conditions are right for this revolution to occur by the end of this decade. Advances at the intersection of the information, natural and social sciences will spark a new wave of technology that will unleash powerful forces within people that were never before imaginable. A tiny sample of such innovations now under development at the MIT Media Lab follows:

* Radical new "human/computer interfaces" that enable people to access and manipulate information directly in the physical world, literally with their hands, eliminating the need for keyboards and displays.

* Sociable robots and other digital devices that learn from and understand humans - our behavior, emotions, intentions, intuition and much more -- and use this knowledge to augment human abilities and eradicate disabilities.

* Tools that make it possible for everyone -- young and old, abled and disabled, advantaged and disadvantaged -- to create their own musical compositions and interactive digital media just like professionals.

These innovations and many others like them, when combined with the expanding Mobile Web, will enable ordinary people to do extraordinary things. For example at the Media Lab we are prototyping next generation technology platforms that:

* Enable patients to take control of their health
* Consumers to take control of their finances
* Audiences to shape the arc of stories
* Students to learn outside schools and much more.

So my message for today's college students: Although the world awaiting you after graduation is in a state of crisis, your generation has the power to launch a bottom up revolution that will change the way it works forever. No pressure, but humanity is depending on you!