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Bonnie Johnson, PhD

Senior Lecturer, Graduate School of Information Sciences

Dr. Bonnie Johnson is a senior lecturer with the Systems Engineering Department at the Naval Postgraduate School. She has a BS in physics from Virginia Tech, an MS in systems engineering from Johns Hopkins, and a PhD in systems engineering from NPS. Johnson’s research focuses on two main areas: automation/artificial intelligence for defense applications and directed energy warfare studies. She leads research involving various organizations in the Navy, Army Marine Corps and Air Force as well as industry partners in directed energy laser weapon systems, automated battle management aids, artificial intelligence, predictive analytics, and complex systems. Johnson is the 2022 recipient, along with Dr. Mark Orescanin, of the Richard W. Hamming Faculty Award for Interdisciplinary Achievement. Prior to working at NPS, Johnson was a senior systems engineer with Northrop Grumman and SAIC, working on Naval and Joint air and missile defense systems.

Your research involves various organizations across the Department of Defense, multiple industry partners, and is interdisciplinary cross-department within NPS. How is NPS distinctly positioned and equipped for this type of collaborative research?

NPS is the perfect place for researching interdisciplinary solutions to military challenges — I call these "hard problems." There are three factors that lead to NPS being uniquely qualified for this:  (1) the students — they are knowledgeable and already engaged in these hard problems either as warfighters or civilians, (2) the faculty knowledge and experience that spans many disciplines, and (3) the community of learning, camaraderie and enthusiasm for solving these problems.

As we rely more and more on AI/ML systems, many are concerned that we are creating more cyber vulnerabilities. How can we ensure that these systems are protected from adversarial attack? What measures are taken to mitigate vulnerabilities?

This is one of the "hard problems" that DOD and the Navy need to tackle. There are many types of cyberattacks, and this threat is constantly changing as adversaries seek new ways of intrusion, information access, corruption, disruption, spoofing, and even taking control of our warfare systems. As we develop and implement AI/ML systems, we are making systems more intelligent. If hackers gain control of intelligent systems, the impacts could have more severe consequences. One of the solution strategies I'm pursuing is something I'm calling metacognition. This approach takes advantage of the "intelligence" of AI systems — embedding these systems with metacognitive abilities to gain self-awareness to detect possible cyber intrusions or unusual circumstances and raise "red flags" of potential cyberattacks to the human operators.

You have had ample interaction and time with NPS students through your research/thesis advisory work, teaching and multiple interdisciplinary research projects. How would you characterize the NPS student body? How does their operational experience impact their academic work? 

My primary focus at NPS is research and I know that when my students begin their thesis or capstone research, they are ready — they have actual operational/warfighting experience or on-the-job engineering experience and they have acquired a world-class foundation of systems engineering knowledge through the courses they have just taken at NPS. They may also have taken specialty courses in other NPS departments such as in Physics, Operations Research, Information Sciences or Computer Sciences. This helps them quickly climb the "learning curve" necessary to understand "hard military problems," and identify and analyze technological solutions to these problems.

However, the secret superpower that really differentiates NPS students from students at any other university is their enthusiasm and inherent drive — they are very cognizant of the importance of their work, and how critical it is to making a positive difference in the world. This sets them apart!

What led you to NPS and what is most rewarding about your work here?

I first visited NPS in the late 90s as a young engineer attending a conference. Having grown up and spent most of my time on the East Coast, several things made a huge impression on me: Herrmann Hall — so beautiful and vintage with the maze and peacocks, the wondrous cactus garden, and the fancy clothing that the students and faculty used to wear (sports jackets and turtlenecks for the men and often dresses and skirts for the women). NPS seemed like an enchanting place! Fast forward a couple decades to 2011, and it was very exciting to start working for NPS. This brings me to what is the most rewarding about my job — and it is the ideas. NPS is a community of brilliant people — all actively learning, acquiring more knowledge, brainstorming, sharing ideas and collaborating. The military focus of this pursuit toward new and better ideas provides a sense of making the world a better place.

We’d love to know more about your personal research. What is something you are currently working on, or have recently worked on, that you find particularly interesting or impactful?

I am very fortunate to get to pursue pretty much any research topic that interests me. Several examples of particularly interesting projects come to mind, but I'll stick to describing one of them. I call it the "Cognitive Laser." I had been working with the DOD laser community for a number of years, studying many different aspects of laser weapon systems I had also been working on applying advanced analytics and AI to tactical decision aids for warfighters. It occurred to me that these interdisciplinary areas needed to come together. Future laser weapon system operators would need AI-enabled decision aids to help them operate these highly complex systems.  My NPS colleague and friend, Dr. Ying Zhao, from the Information Sciences department, came up with the name "Cognitive Laser" and encouraged me to pursue it. Many NPS students have now engaged in this research and the laser community now has a dedicated track during their annual symposium for AI applications for lasers. It is fascinating research and exciting to see this interdisciplinary topic evolve.

You were recently awarded the Hamming Award for Interdisciplinary Achievement. How does it feel to be awarded this honor?

It is thrilling to win this award!

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