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  • Writer's pictureSarah Ruivivar

Google Engineer's Alleged AI Secrets Theft: A Twist

Image credits: The Verge

In a plot twist worthy of a Hollywood spy thriller, Google engineer Linwei Ding, aka Leon Ding, has been indicted by a federal grand jury.

The charge? Allegedly pilfering Google’s AI chip software and hardware trade secrets. The indictment came hot on the heels of Ding's arrest in Newark, California, on March 5th.

Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco dropped the bombshell, stating that Ding had allegedly swiped over 500 Google files containing confidential AI trade secrets. And here's the kicker - he was supposedly doing this undercover work for China-based companies eager for an edge in the AI technology race.

So, what's in the stolen loot? It's all about Google’s tensor processing unit (TPU) chips. These chips are the powerhouse behind many of Google’s AI workloads. Working alongside Nvidia GPUs, they train and run AI models like Gemini. Google has even offered access to these chips through partner platforms like Hugging Face.

The allegedly stolen files include software designs for the v4 and v6 TPU chips, hardware and software specifications for GPUs used in Google’s data centre, and designs for Google’s machine learning workloads in data centres.

With the AI technology arms race heating up and the US government's attempts to ban China from accessing AI-specific chips, some Chinese companies have reportedly turned to local chip producers. This move comes after the Five Eyes alliance, comprising the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, issued warnings to US tech companies about potential intellectual property theft by Chinese companies.

The government accuses Ding of transferring the stolen files to a personal Google Cloud account between May 2022 and May 2023. The alleged method? Copying data into the Apple Notes application on his Google-issued MacBook laptop, then converting them into PDFs to dodge Google’s data loss prevention systems.

The plot thickens as Ding is said to have flown to China for five months to raise funds for a Chinese machine learning company, Rongshu, while still working for Google. He later founded a machine learning startup, Zhisuan, and resigned from Google in December 2023. If convicted, Ding faces up to ten years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each count.

Google spokesperson José Castañeda expressed gratitude to the FBI for their assistance and pledged to continue cooperating closely with them. As the saga unfolds, all eyes are on the courtroom, and one thing is clear: the stakes in the AI race have never been higher.

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