Technology

A Zoom Call, Fake Names and an A.I. Presentation Gone Awry


Arthur AI, an artificial intelligence company in New York, received a message in April last year from a start-up called OneOneThree. Yan Fung, OneOneThree’s head of technology, said he was interested in buying Arthur AI’s technology and wanted a demonstration.

A week later, Arthur AI held a Zoom meeting with Mr. Fung to show him its software, according to emails and a video recording viewed by The New York Times. When Mr. Fung’s colleague joined the call, the Arthur AI team realized something was off.

Mr. Fung said Karina Patel, OneOneThree’s “main engineer,” would dial in. But the name that flashed up in the Zoom call was Aparna Dhinakaran. An Arthur AI employee recognized the name as belonging to a founder of Arize AI, a rival start-up. “That’s so strange — I don’t know how they could have possibly gotten the link,” the Arthur AI employee said.

The new attendee quickly logged off, and Mr. Fung said he did not know Ms. Dhinakaran.

Arthur AI later surmised from online photos that Mr. Fung was an employee of ArizeAI named Dat Ngo, a person with knowledge of the situation said. OneOneThree appeared to be an inactive company of his.

The world of A.I. has become increasingly competitive as big tech companies and start-ups fight for customers, talent, funding and publicity. As a race over the technology heats up, large companies have raided universities for engineers while some of their top talent have left to start their own A.I. companies. In recent months, venture capitalists have also dueled ferociously to invest in A.I. start-ups by dangling large sums at soaring valuations.

The jockeying among A.I. start-ups is particularly intense. Only the ones that strike the right partnerships, land the biggest customers and generate the most buzz have a chance at riding the wave of hype to success.

When A.I. has attracted interest in the past, some companies have overpromised what they can do. A 2019 study by MMC, a London-based venture capital firm, found that 40 percent of 2,830 European start-ups that were classified as A.I. companies did not use A.I. technology for any material business reason.

“We know people would do crazy things to get ahead,” said Olivier Toubia, a professor of behavioral economics and entrepreneurship at Columbia Business School. He said the tech industry’s history of cutthroat competition, especially during times of frenzied investment and opportunity, went back to the late-1990s dot-com boom.

Many businesses track their rivals, and tech start-ups are known for using aggressive and unconventional tactics to grow as quickly as possible. But most draw a line at behavior like using a false identity or another company’s name to pose as a customer.

Arthur AI’s chief executive and an Arize AI spokesman declined to comment. Ms. Dhinakaran and Mr. Ngo did not respond to requests for comment.

Arize AI and Arthur AI both offer “observability” software, which helps companies monitor and solve problems with A.I. models. Customers would most likely compare the offerings and choose one.

Ms. Dhinakaran started Arize AI in 2020 in the San Francisco Bay Area with Jason Lopatecki, a former executive at TubeMogul, an advertising technology company. The start-up has raised $61 million from investors including Battery Ventures, Foundation Capital, TCV and Trinity Ventures, valuing it at $155 million, according to PitchBook, which tracks start-ups.

In a 2022 presentation, Arize AI listed Uber, eBay and Instacart as customers. The presentation ended with an A.I.-generated image of the company’s hypothetical initial public offering.

Ms. Dhinakaran, 29, is active in the A.I. start-up scene. She speaks at industry events and writes a column about A.I. for Forbes, which has listed her as a 30 under 30 honoree, an award for successful young people in business. She promotes her experience as “an ML engineer and leader” at Uber, where she worked for three years, and at Apple and TubeMogul, where she was an intern.

In 2020, Ms. Dhinakaran competed in the reality television show “The Amazing Race” with her brother. They finished fifth.

“I’m passionate about making A.I. successful, fair and transparent,” she wrote in a biography for the show. She added that she was a foodie who enjoyed trying new cuisines, with other favorite hobbies including tennis and “hosting board game nights that involve lying.”

On LinkedIn, Mr. Ngo is listed as a founder of the OneOneThree Project, which was described as a research provider for autonomous vehicle networks, from June 2020 to July 2021. During that time, he worked as a data scientist at the software company Point Predictive and the tax consulting firm Alliantgroup, according to his LinkedIn profile. He joined Arize AI in January 2022.

Mr. Ngo registered a business called OneOneThree in Delaware in April 2021, a year before the Arthur AI meeting and eight months before he started working at Arize AI, according to corporate filings. OneOneThree had no website at the time of the meeting and lists two former employees, including Mr. Ngo, on LinkedIn. OneOneThree’s registration has not been active since March, according to a filing and a representative for the Delaware secretary of state.

OneOneThree has also appeared in a customer contact list for WhyLabs, another A.I. start-up that competes with Arize, indicating that OneOneThree signed up for a demonstration or attended an event hosted by WhyLabs, the person with knowledge of the situation said. On the call with Arthur AI, Mr. Ngo, appearing as Mr. Fung, said that OneOneThree had looked at WhyLabs’s software and liked some aspects of it, but that “it didn’t go deep enough for me.”

Before that Zoom meeting last year between Arthur AI and OneOneThree, the person calling himself Mr. Fung explained that OneOneThree was in “stealth mode,” which is why it had no website, the person with knowledge of the situation said.

Arthur AI asked Mr. Fung to sign a mutual nondisclosure agreement, which is common among tech companies to protect trade secrets. He asked Arthur AI to “hold off on the NDA,” according to messages viewed by The Times. The company agreed.

During the call, Mr. Ngo answered Arthur AI’s questions about OneOneThree, according to the video recording of the meeting. Then he said his colleague Ms. Patel would join.

That was when Ms. Dhinakaran’s name came up onscreen, before quickly logging off. The meeting went silent. An Arthur AI employee asked Mr. Ngo if he knew Ms. Dhinakaran and why a competing start-up’s founder would try to see the demonstration, according to the recording.

“Nope, shouldn’t be anyone I know,” he replied.

Shortly after the call, an Arthur AI employee confronted Mr. Ngo in a LinkedIn message, a person with knowledge of the exchange said. Mr. Ngo responded by trying to recruit the Arthur AI employee to Arize AI, the person said.

Susan C. Beachy contributed research.