Conducting innovative research in AI is not straightforward. Researchers should focus on a problem area that they are deeply passionate about, e.g., NLP, multi-modal AI, computer vision, speech, synthetic data, graph-based models etc. For research, the problem could be in the theoretical realm. However, if the problem area is grounded in the real-world, then practitioners can actually test their algorithms on real-world data and learn from the feedback.
The most important skill for doing novel research is to think deeply about a particular problem, and apply the scientific method systematically. This involves coming up with relevant hypotheses and conducting several experiments using the right datasets, algorithms, models etc. to test the validity of the hypotheses. An empiricial, data-driven strategy coupled with creative ideas usually leads to novel research output.
To come up with innovative ideas, you need to know the existing literature and what ideas have previously worked or not worked for a particular problem. Sometimes, it is sufficient to translate existing ideas for your particular use cases as well. Knowing what ideas can generalize and are practically feasible to solve a business problem is a rare skill that distinguishes the best applied researchers from the rest.