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Scientists finding new frontiers, near and far

A new feature spotlights "Explorers" changing the world.



Technology (general)

(CNN) -- Even without sailing to distant lands, modern-day scientists and researchers are charting new territory.

From new ways to view the stars to robotic cockroaches, this breed of 21st century explorer is making discoveries to advance daily life in the fields of medicine, computers, communication and other areas.

"The pace of innovation in all of the emerging technology areas is pretty impressive," said James P. Clark, founder of the World Technology Network, which hosts the World Technology Summit and Awards each year.

One expanding area that fascinates scientists is robotics, especially of the petite variety.

James McLurkin, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is working on ways in which multiple robots small enough to fit in your hand can be controlled by "swarm" behavior, acting much like ants, bees and cockroaches. (Watch robots swarm like bugs -- 1:03)

"Imagine if you have an earthquake and you have a pile of rubble. This is a task that humans are particularly ill-suited for. We are either too big or too weak to move the rubble," McLurkin said.

"[But say] you have 20,000 cockroach-sized robots and they scurry through the pile looking for survivors, for signs of life. When they find something, they send a signal out," he said.

"It's something that is almost impossible for us to do now with current technology."

The practical applications for large-scale work by tiny robots exist in many capacities, the MIT researcher said. Sending 2,000 tiny robots to Mars can cover a lot more ground than sending two bigger robots, he said, or the smaller robots could comb battlefields for wounded troops or enemies.

Innovation in daily life

Other new inventions may not save lives, but they stand to make life a little easier or more fun.

One day, as Chinedu Echeruo was navigating the mind-boggling maze of the New York transit system, he thought there had to be a way to use technology to make it easier.

So he created Hopstop.comexternal link, a free Web site offering step-by-step instructions on how to get from point A to point B in the Big Apple via subway, bus or even your own two feet. Instructions can even be delivered to cell phones. The service has expanded to other cities.

Another New York service, Dodgeball.comexternal link, aims to keep your social circle spinning. The creators call it "mobile social software."

"Let's say you're out having drinks for happy hour with friends and you use your mobile phone to send a text message of your whereabouts to Dodgeball," explained founder Dennis Crowley.

"Once you tell [Dodgeball] your location, we'll look up that location. We'll look up a list of who all your friends are and then ping all of those friends with your whereabouts." (Full story)

Whether it's cell phone service or new medical equipment, Clark, of the World Technology Network, marvels at how people quickly adopt new technology into daily life.

"What we find magically awe-inspiring one year will likely become something that we take for granted as 'normal' a few years later," he said.

Whatever the research or invention, he said, most successful explorers of new technologies share some characteristics -- patience in the face of adversity, a maverick-toned personality, healthy respect for the role of serendipity and insatiable curiosity.

"Humanity is in its infancy in terms of what we know about our universe versus what there is to know," he said. "Everything discovered by science so far about how the world works is so intricately majestic in its mystery that a life of exploration could never lead to boredom."

Hal McAlister, who has developed advanced astronomy technology through a network of interconnected telescopes, put it this way: "By learning more about the stars, we learn more about our own star and really what gives us here life on Earth." (Watch reaching for the stars -- 0:51)

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