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Tesla sues former engineer, claims he stole Dojo supercomputer trade secrets

AI is meant to solve tech challenges innate in designing, running complex system

Tesla has started legal action against a former employee the company alleges was copying confidential data from its Project Dojo supercomputer onto his own systems outside the company. It further alleges he tried to conceal his actions by submitting a substitute laptop for inspection by the carmaker's information security team.

In documents filed with the US District Court in California [PDF], Tesla names the former employee involved in the case as Alexander Yatskov, and reveals that he was hired at the end of January to work as a thermal engineer on it’s supercomputer for artificial intelligence work, codenamed Dojo, in order to help solve "the technological challenges that come from designing and running a complex, custom supercomputer."

Some time later, Tesla claims that its engineers discovered that Yatskov was moving confidential company information from workplace devices and accounts onto his own personal devices, in contravention of official Tesla policies.

Tesla asserts that he was creating documents containing confidential Project Dojo details on a personal computer, a detail that it claims it uncovered when Yatskov was allegedly found to be emailing confidential company information from his personal email address to his Tesla email address, although Tesla states in the court filings that it is "unclear how he exfiltrated the information in the first instance."

Tesla's Project Dojo supercomputer is an internal initiative intended to deliver a system with enormous machine learning performance in order to train models for use in the firm's vehicles, with the ultimate goal of delivering a fully autonomous self-driving vehicle capability.

The supercomputer is being designed in-house from the ground up, starting with Tesla's own D1 silicon – a chip that comprises 354 custom CPU cores, or training nodes as the firm calls them.

Each chip is said to be capable of 362 TeraFLOPS of compute performance, and Tesla is interconnecting 25 of these chips inside a "training tile" module, and six of these tiles inside a rack-mounted tray, in order to build up the complete Dojo supercomputer.

The Dojo architecture was detailed by Tesla's senior director of hardware, Ganesh Venkataramanan, at the company's AI Day in August last year.

According to Tesla, thermal management is a vital aspect of designing and managing a supercomputer such as Dojo, with all those chips packed closely together and operating at multi-gigahertz clock frequencies, and this is the kind of trade secrets that the company says it is trying to protect in this case.

In the court filing, Tesla said it has an entire team of engineers dedicated to designing cooling systems for Dojo, and has collected large volumes of data regarding the thermal characteristics of Dojo operating with various cooling configurations.

Yatskov was part of the team responsible for running simulations of how different thermal designs affect heat distribution and trade-off between aspects such as speed, power and cost, it said in the complaint, claiming that he had access not only to thermal-related data, but other unspecified confidential information concerning the Dojo project.

The automotive company states that this information would be highly valuable to other parties, especially those looking to develop thermal management systems for other supercomputer projects.

"The Tesla Trade Secrets are extremely valuable to Tesla and would be to a competitor. Access to the Tesla Trade Secrets would enable engineers at other companies to reverse engineer Tesla's Trade Secrets to create similar supercomputer thermal systems in a fraction of the time and with a fraction of the expense it took Tesla to build it."

The court filing also contains some unusual claims. Tesla alleges that after being hired, the company found that Yatskov had lied about his work history and expertise on his resume; that he was repeatedly unable to complete tasks he was hired for; and that he provided incoherent answers when asked for explanations.

The company also claims that when it discovered Yatskov was downloading work information onto personal devices, he admitted doing so during an interview ahead of being put on administrative leave, and was asked to bring in his personal devices for "forensic imaging" to recover the information.

In the document, Tesla goes on to allege that when the defendant submitted his personal computer for inspection, it found that it was not the same system that had been used to store the company information, but a "dummy" laptop that it claims had not been logged into since November 2020, apart from a logon the same morning as the aforementioned interview.

Tesla alleges that after that logon, Yatskov added information to the hard drive of the dummy laptop to make it appear he had only accessed innocuous information from Tesla, such as an offer letter, in an effort to fool Tesla's information security team.

It went on to allege:

After providing this "dummy" laptop to try and hide his activity, Defendant resigned from Tesla.

The firm said it was therefore forced to seek court relief in order to safeguard its confidential information. It is asking for an injunction against the defendant passing on Tesla's trade secrets, and to require him to return all Tesla equipment, tangible materials, and information that remain in his possession.

We contacted Tesla for a statement regarding this legal action, but the company was not immediately able to furnish us with a response. ®

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