In a significant development amid the US vs China AI struggle, Linwei Ding, an engineer at Google also known by the name Leon Ding, faces charges of theft concerning the company’s AI chip technology.

The accusations, which pertain to both software and hardware trade secrets, led to an indictment by a federal grand jury on March 5th. Following the charges, Ding was apprehended in Newark, California, during the early hours of Wednesday.

Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco revealed in a statement that: “Ding stole from Google over 500 confidential files containing AI trade secrets while covertly working for China-based companies seeking an edge in the AI technology race.”

The data purportedly pilfered centers on Google’s tensor processing unit (TPU) chips, a cornerstone of the tech giant’s AI operations. These TPU chips, crucial for powering a wide array of Google’s AI tasks, work alongside Nvidia GPUs to facilitate the training and operation of AI models, including the likes of Gemini. Furthermore, Google has extended the reach of these chips by making them accessible via partner platforms, such as Hugging Face.

The stolen files allegedly include software designs for both the v4 and v6 TPU chips as well as technical details for GPUs used in Google data centers, including their hardware and software specifications. Designs for Google’s machine learning workloads were reportedly stolen as well.

The US government has previously placed sanctions on American companies trying to trade with China in terms of AI hardware. The sanctions include disallowing companies such as Nvidia from exporting powerful AI hardware to China, including their RTX 4090 gaming GPUs. As a result, Nvidia was forced to ship lower-end versions of the RTX 4090 to circumvent the sanctions. Chinese companies are also turning to local chip producers for their rising AI demands.

Toward the end of last year, heads of intelligence from the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, collectively known as the Five Eyes alliance, alerted American technology firms to the potential risk of intellectual property theft by Chinese corporations, focusing on critical areas such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and robotics.