Where is technology going? How do we plan? How do we explain it?

Just keep the phrase “hot solar cells” in mind as you read this blog post.

People talk a lot about the pace but not the predictability of technological change.

Early computers were big, slow, clunky, and couldn’t do much...until they got better. The entire computing power it took to send Apollo 11 to the moon now fits on a phone.

Early solar panels were big, slow, clunky, and couldn’t do much...but they keep getting better. Maybe one day the total energy it took to send Apollo 11 to the moon will fit on a phone.

But the serious point remains – technology keeps getting better and better.

For example – hot solar cells. A team at MIT is developing a new way to improve the efficiency of solar panels . Sunlight gets turned into heat and then back into light within the spectrum that solar panels can use.

It’s early days but they predict to have something viable for practical use within 10-15 years.

If we know what new technology is capable of and approximately when it will be ready for wider use, perhaps we could start planning for how to more widely integrate it.

That’s easier said than done, though. If you want to integrate technology on a wider, industrial, societal scale, then non-experts will also have to understand enough about the technology too.

What the hell does “solar thermophotovoltaics” mean? Well, it’s “hot solar cell” technology.

Isn’t that much easier? Why make things unnecessarily harder for non-experts, especially when you rely on their support?

It’s been a few weeks now since the US President announced that he would pull the US from the Paris climate agreement.

If you believe in the merits of the Paris climate agreement then you’ve failed. Knowing a lot about climate change and all the related fields of science, engineering, or policy-making and international diplomacy, was not good enough.

The President argued his decision on the basis of costs – to the US economy, jobs, taxpayers, and ultimately the cost to the voters who won him the White House.

This seems like the starkest reminder that those in science and technology rely on non-experts for their support, whether it’s politicians or the public in general.

If you want to see technology move forward then you should also want to understand how to explain things to a wider audience.

In any case, I’m an optimist. Even if people in science and technology fail to make their case, perhaps they can fall back on the predictability of technological change.

Just as computers became cheaper and improved to a point where we now can’t live without them, and people of course see their value, the same path looks true for renewable energy.

It’s risky, though, to rely on the idea of great technology making its own case.