Unfortunately, I did not know where to post this sort of question as it is very ambiguous. So I figured the Academia forum was the best place to ask, but feel free to point me to another direction. That said, this question is more about getting inspiration, rather than getting answers.

Here's my story: I'm currently studying computer science at college, and finally being top of my class in a particular course has given me the confidence to strive for greater things than I originally thought possible for myself. I want to pursue a job in research, because I would rather help mankind with technological/innovative progress than financial/social progress... So my dream is to acquire myself a well-earned Ph.D.

But here's the thing: I've studied computer security most of my life (leisure-study), and always imagined that this would be my main field of research because I'm very good at this specific area of expertise.

However, recently i've started to rethink this career path. My realization was that this field, albeit obviously not wasteful, was not going to prove beneficial for mankind in general/long-term. Unless we could use these defensive information technologies against a synthetic alien invasion, who's plan A was to destroy our Internet, hindering communications. But somehow I still think they would succeed.

So I have started to look into other areas of computer science. I kinda always had a dream of working with quantum computers (probably more a physics/engineering field at the moment), but i'm not really one of those extremely hardcore nerd types (God bless you guys.), so I suppose that's out of reach for me.

I'm leaning towards artificial intelligence, because I imagine that the two most prominent areas of research that will cause significiant improvements on our way of life will be either quantum computers, for their theoretical astonomical computational powers, and self-aware "strong AIs" that can help our race with all our physical, philosophical and economical problems (to name a few).

But I would still like to know if you guys think I should try to pursue something different. I'm not all that great at mathematics, but i'm extremely committed to my work once I begin, so I wouldn't mind becoming one of those "hardcore nerd types". I looked abit on http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computer_science , and skimmed the theoretical computer science section, but nothing really sticks.

P.S. Please do not provide an answer such as "just learn what you love to learn", but it's not that simple in this case. I love just about everything that has to do with computers, both theory and applied, and computer science isn't a small genre to pick from.

Thank you most sincerely.

closed as off-topic by jakebeal, RoboKaren, Aru Ray, Enthusiastic Engineer, EnergyNumbers Aug 25 '15 at 21:28

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

  • "The answer to this question strongly depends on individual factors such as a certain person’s preferences, a given institution’s regulations, the exact contents of your work or your personal values. Thus only someone familiar can answer this question and it cannot be generalised to apply to others. (See this discussion for more info.)" – jakebeal, RoboKaren, Enthusiastic Engineer, EnergyNumbers
If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 1. In its current form, it is wayy to localized. It could be a nice question if it was general. 2. If it did become general, there would be a rule setup for giving answers (Good subjective, bad subjective type) IMO – user107 Mar 12 '12 at 17:02
  • Don't forget about bioinformatics. Some of what comes out of that field can lead to benefits to humanity. – GWW Mar 12 '12 at 17:06
  • @Nunoxic So what do you propose I do? Should I rewrite the question, so it becomes more general (encompassing all fields of science)? It might make it too general, so that my own question remains unanswered because everyone will pick fields that I have no experience/interest in. – Christopher Brix Mar 12 '12 at 17:31
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    Christopher: I think you can rewrite the question to ask "how do I find an appropriate field of specialization in CS (that interests me)?" That might get you answers that will help you while still promoting the knowledge base for the community at large. (The generalization to other fields would be relatively obvious, in my opinion.) – aeismail Mar 12 '12 at 21:08
  • Just a note, quantum computing isn't just physics/engineering. I also agree that the question is pretty localized and also too long to read for the content. Please try to capture your general and non-specific-to-you question in TL;DR at the start (or clearly marked at the end) of your question. – Artem Kaznatcheev Mar 13 '12 at 5:42
up vote 5 down vote accepted

As a researcher in computer security myself, I guess I can try to provide bits of answers to your question.

First of all, I would tend to disagree with your assumption that computer security won't "prove beneficial for mankind in general/long-term". Clearly, you might not find the cure for cancer by working on security, but that's probably true with anything in CS. However, there is a clear increase in global information sharing, that is beneficial to mankind in so many different ways (healthcare, increased scientific communication, reduce travel, etc), and clearly, this information sharing comes with security issues. I'd say that it's the usual deal with research: you might not be the one who makes the huge life-changing discovery, but you contribute to it.

Then, as a general remark, if you're interested in doing research, then you're starting a 45/50 years career in research. If you don't have a clear "passion" (e.g. you want to work exclusively on provable cryptography), then you might as well consider your PhD as the stepping stone to an academic career. So you can just find a subject that you like enough to dedicate the next 3 to 5 years of your life, active enough so that you can get funding and publish, and later on, once you have a PhD (and a bit more of theoretical background), then you can start finding a subject that is more beneficial to mankind (it's even possible that such a subject does not even exist yet, things are moving fast in research).

So, I'm not saying "learn what you love to learn", but rather find a good PhD advisor on a topic that you're interested in right now, get some research experience, and then you'll be in a much better position to understand what you can do to help mankind. Of course, I'm not saying that you can't be helpful right now, but it's much easier to start your own projects when you have some credentials.

  • I'm not saying that computer security is a useless field of study. I'm just saying that it doesn't exactly push mankind forward. Anyway, very good answer my friend, this was what I was looking for, thank you :) – Christopher Brix Mar 13 '12 at 8:35
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    Glad I can help :) However, I pretty much agree with the idea behind Jeff's answer: you have to love research for research, for the pleasure of working on hard problems, when you have no idea if there is a solution or not. Because whatever topic you'll choose, it will be so specific that you will lose the bigger picture (otherwise, it's not really a research problem). I'd suggest you go to an AI Lab page (e.g. ai.stanford.edu/people.html), and check the PhD topics of the students/faculty, that could give you an idea of what's done in AI. – user102 Mar 13 '12 at 8:54
  • I should add that later on, you can also create larger projects, gathering many researchers, many from different fields, and such a project can have an impact in practice. But I don't think it should be your motivation now, otherwise you might get frustrated before reaching this stage. – user102 Mar 13 '12 at 8:57

Honestly, you sound like someone who is looking for a Magic Bullet to Save The World, not someone who is really informed about or interested in computer science. You sound like someone in love with the idea of computer science research, but with no real idea what computer science research is. Computer security against aliens? Quantum computing? Artificial intelligence? These are all dangerously close to science fiction. There's tons of good research in all those areas, but nothing — in any of those areas — is close to "saving the world", and everything interesting — in all of those areas — requires a fair bit of mathematical maturity. Sorry, but if you don't like math, you won't like real AI research, or real security research, or real quantum computing research.

If you want to do research, and really do it well, you have to love your tools. You have to love the math; you have to love the code; you have to love the nights in the lab; you have to love the balky experimental equipment. You have to love feeling stupid, because researchers spend 99% of their time feeling stupid; they're at the bleeding edge of what mankind understands about Reality, so of course they don't really know what they're doing. You have to love to work in the face of almost certain failure. You have to take the world's ignorance, especially your own personal ignorance, as motivation, not frustration. You have to get over the idea that you are going to Save to World, because you aren't, but you do the work anyway, because you can't not do the work; it's in your blood; it's who you are.

If that's not you, don't bother. There are much better ways to make money. There are much better ways to help people. There are much better ways to be happy than to do something you don't really love because you think it's Cool and Important.

But if you really can't live without doing it, then you really have no choice—do it, and do it well. And who knows; you may save the world after all! (But probably not.)

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    +1, and I am a bit of a cynic: nobody and nothing in science will save the world. If the goal of someone is to save the world, he should consider becoming a psychiatrist. – Sylvain Peyronnet Mar 13 '12 at 0:06
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    However, to change the world instead of saving it, CS is fine ;) – Sylvain Peyronnet Mar 13 '12 at 0:06
  • Thank you for your answer. Unfortunately for me, it looks like your answer was not directed at me, since you missed most of the major points in my question. For example, I never said I wanted to save mankind, but rather wanted to pick a field that was beneficial for it. Secondly, you assume I don't want to learn mathematics... If you had read the question you would've seen I said I was not good at it, not that I didn't want to learn it. Thirdly, computer security against aliens was a joke good sir... Thank you for your great input. – Christopher Brix Mar 13 '12 at 8:25
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    I was trying to respond to the tone of your question as much as the actual content; if it helps, substitute "help mankind" for "Save the World" everywhere. Shorter and soberer answer: Just learn what you love to learn and you're good at learning. – JeffE Mar 13 '12 at 14:35

I don't really have an answer for you as it is ultimately your decision, but I think that choosing a subject based on its perceived potential being beneficial to mankind is not a good starting point. I would argue that you cannot judge the benefits society will have from your research until after it has happened. You can have all the best intentions and fail, or do something just for the fun of it and happen to invent something hugely useful. Many of the elements of modern computer interfaces for example were pioneered at Xerox PARC decades ago when nobody was really thinking about the impact their research would ultimately have.

Furthermore it will depend more on your individual contribution than on the field as a whole. Finally, even the most promising research might be not suitable for you because you don't enjoy it/find it too hard/don't like the people you're working with.

  • You make a really good point, but as far as the last paragraph goes; I'm not going to blindly pick a field because someone over the Internet told me to. I'm going to do my own research beforehand to see if it even suits me, so don't worry about that. :) – Christopher Brix Mar 13 '12 at 8:29

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