Zena Assaad

Trusted Autonomous Systems (TAS)
Safety of human-machine teaming

Zena Assaad


My work looks at the safety considerations of humans operating alongside machines with autonomous and AI capabilities. As machines become more advanced in their capabilities, the way humans interact with machines will evolve. Humans are developing more intricate relationships with machines and this introduces safety considerations that extend beyond physical harms. Factors like trust and ethics now form part of the safety landscape. These factors are subjective and difficult to quantify. This makes it hard to capture these factors and to develop measures against them to ensure humans will not be negatively impacted. How can we say a system is ethical if we cannot demonstrate its ethics? These are the types of questions my research attempts to address. My focus is on the development of safety frameworks that support the safe and ethical implementation of robotics, autonomous systems and AI, from a human perspective.


I am a fellow with the Trusted Autonomous Systems (TAS) defence cooperative research centre. The Queensland Government supported the establishment of TAS’ Brisbane headquarters. The state government also supports the TAS Assurance of Autonomy Activity, Advance Queensland Fellows, and other research and technology development projects. TAS is working towards delivering research into world-leading autonomous and robotic technologies to enable trusted and effective cooperation between humans and machines. Queensland is currently leading work in the robotics and autonomy space. The success of the adoption and implementation of these technologies is dependent on demonstrating that they can be safely implemented alongside humans. My research looks specifically at the safe implementation of these machines. As a TAS fellow, my work supports the advancement of TAS’ objectives which include assisting Australian industry to develop  and implement new, improved and competitive autonomy technologies. Being based in Queensland, specifically Brisbane, I have had the opportunity to engage with various organisations working in this space. From start ups through to more established organisations, my work has allowed me to delve into the Queenlsand robotics, autonomous systems and AI ecosystems. I have been fortunate enough to be able to engage with these organisations and share some of my work in support of the implementation of robotics, autonomous systems and AI.

Role Model

I think I am a good role model for women and girls aspiring to work in STEM because I represent a minority of women within the field; women of colour. It’s challenging to not only be the only woman in the room, but also to not look like everyone else in the room. While I fundamentally believe that most people have good intentions, my experience working in STEM as a woman of colour has been a challenging one. It was hard to navigate some of these experiences because, at the early stages of my career, I struggled to find another person who was going through the same experiences. Now that I am at a more mature point in my career, I do a lot of mentoring for young women in the early stages of their STEM careers. One of my focuses when mentoring young women is supporting young women of colour. From my own experience, I am the first person in my family to go to university. I didn’t have role models around me at the time who looked like me. Because of this, I like to direct my efforts towards young women of colour, providing a space for them to connect with someone who has a similar background and who has had similar cultural experiences. Being a woman of colour comes with its own challenges, so building a community to support other young women like me is something I am very passionate about.


I co-host and co-produce the Algorithmic Futures podcast: https://algorithmicfutures.org/ This podcast series explores the work needed to successfully design technology and policy for an uncertain future. To date, our guests on the podcast have been predominantly women. My co-host and I have used this podcast series as a platform to elevate female voices in the industry. We provide our guests a platform for sharing their work and also sharing some of the challenges of being a woman in STEM. Developing this podcast series has been a career highlight for me, because it has given me the opportunity to meet and connect with amazing women, sharing their stories more broadly with the world. This podcast has become a vessel for promoting STEM careers to young women, through sharing honest and authentic stories from women in STEM. We encourage our guests to share their ups and downs, emphasising how they have navigated some of the challenges in the different stages of their careers.
I also make an effort to participate in women in STEM initiatives to help provide representation of women in colour in the industry. One example is my involvement as a panellist in the mentoring panel at the recent women in aviation national conference 2023: https://waiaustralia.org/events/2023-national-conference/ . I was also recently named one of the 100 brilliant women in AI ethics for 2023 as a result of my work around the development and implementation of safe and trustworthy robotics, autonomous systems and AI, factoring in considerations like ethics when defining safety: https://womeninaiethics.org/the-list/of-2023 These lists are released each year and they provide an opportunity for raising awareness around the talented women working in the AI space. They provide a collated resource of female identifying experts and leaders in the field. 

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