This morning I was asked this great question, which I am struggling to answer, as this is a problem with many dimensions. Anyway, here is my try to give a partial answer.
The first answer is “never ending curiosity”. I wake up in the morning just wondering why things are how they are. Why are trees growing towards light, and not towards darkness? Why do we need light to live? Photosynthesis describes a pattern, but does not give the fundamental answer. There is always so many more questions than answers, and every answer brings more questions.
The second answer is “I want to find answers to questions I am passionate about”. So, you need to find your passion. How to find your passion? One answer is looking at other people. Whom do you admire most? What are people whom you find cool doing? For instance, Elon Musk said that he was most inspired by Nikola Tesla, as a consequence he started exploring electricity, ultimately building electric cars and naming his company “Tesla”. The area of research you choose also has to do with your personality. I noticed that an economist, a marketing researcher, a computer scientist, a psychologist, and a zoologist have very different personalities. The personality differences are even larger between soldiers, physicians, professors, entrepreneurs, and managers.
If the most exciting thing for you is being a professor at a top university, then choose your research questions opportunistically. Try to find answers to “hot” research problems in your area. For instance, a hot area right now is fake news detection and prevention, using AI.
Personally, I am much more interested in “cool” things than in “hot” things. The difference between “hot” and “cool” is that “hot problems” are in everybody’s awareness, which means it will be much easier to get your paper accepted, if you offer an incrementally new solution extending an existing solution. “Cool” problems are ahead of their time. There is a small group of other “crazy researchers” working on them, but it will be much harder to get papers accepted about “cool” topics. Papers addressing “hot problems” will offer incremental innovation, papers addressing “cool problems” will offer radical breakthrough innovation. The problem is that at first people will say it’s crazy, does not work, or is not a problem worth investigating, until it is suddenly “obvious”. I have seen that many times. For instance, in 2003 or 2004 I was in a meeting with VCs who were discussing investing in face recognition startups. They had invited a famous professor from a top university, an expert in image recognition, who told them that computers would never be able to recognize faces as accurately as people could. Well, fast forward a few years, and computers have become much better than humans in this task – isn’t that obvious!
The pebble rolls down the hill, inspiring the concept of the wheel. Innovation consist of applying existing solutions from other fields to the problem at hand. How to find new ideas? Talk to as many smart people from as many different backgrounds as possible. This is why I like to teach at universities around the world, students in Finland, Chile, the US, China, Italy, Germany, etc. have very different perspectives of the same problem. In my research I am straddling mathematics, computer science, management science, sociology, psychology, philosophy, and biology which I find immensely enriching. As is bringing computers to children in the developing world, working on reducing infant mortality in the US, and trying to understand how plants, horses and dogs communicate. In the end this will even inspire a better understanding of how fake news spread.