The new front between the United States and China

(San Francisco) NASA has chosen this technology to help land its future spacecraft on unmapped planets. Meta uses this technology for artificial intelligence. Chinese engineers used it to encrypt data.

And it could represent the next front in the semiconductor trade war between the United States and China.

This is RISC-V technology, which is pronounced “risk five”. Originating in a computer lab at a California university, it has become the basis for a myriad of chips that handle computing tasks. RISC-V essentially provides a sort of common language for designing processors found in devices such as smartphones, disk drives, WiFi routers, and tablets.

In recent months, RISC-V has sparked renewed debate in Washington over how far the United States can or should go as it continually tightens restrictions on exports to China of technologies that could help to the development of its armed forces.

Indeed, RISC-V, which can be downloaded for free from the Internet, has become an essential tool for Chinese companies and government institutions hoping to match America’s semiconductor design prowess.

Last month, the House Investigative Committee on the Chinese Communist Party, led by Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher, recommended that an interagency government committee study the potential risks of RISC-V. Congressional aides met with members of the Biden administration about the technology, and lawmakers and their aides discussed expanding restrictions to prevent U.S. citizens from assisting China with RISC -V, according to congressional staffers.

The Chinese Communist Party is “already attempting to use the architecture of RISC-V to undermine our export controls,” Illinois Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, a Democratic member of the House Select Committee, said in a statement. representatives. He added that RISC-V participants should focus on the advancement of technology, and “not the geopolitical interests of the Chinese Communist Party.”

Suggestions from around the world

Arm Holdings, a British company that sells competing chips, has also lobbied authorities to consider restricting RISC-V, three people familiar with the situation said. Biden administration officials are concerned about China’s use of RISC-V but wary of potential complications in regulating the technology, according to a person familiar with the discussions. The Commerce Department and the National Security Council declined to comment.

The debate over RISC-V is complicated because the technology was modeled on open source software, free programs like Linux that allow any developer to see and modify the original code used to create them.

These programs have incentivized many competitors to innovate and reduce the market power of a single supplier.

But RISC-V is not a code that can be directly used to make anything. It is a set of basic computer instructions that determine the calculations a chip can perform. Engineers can download these instructions and incorporate them into the much more complex task of creating design plans for the parts of a semiconductor. Many companies sell RISC-V chip designs, and some universities and other institutions distribute them for free.

As with Linux – but not technologies from companies like Arm and Intel – engineers around the world can make suggestions to improve the underlying instructions. This process is overseen by RISC-V International, a nonprofit organization with more than 4,000 members in 70 countries, including the Chinese Academy of Sciences and Chinese companies such as Huawei and Alibaba, as well as Google and Qualcomm.

The group changed its status from the United States to Switzerland in 2020 to allay “fears of political disruption” and control by a single country. Its executives said their model mirrors that of other international groups that govern standard technologies like Ethernet and WiFi.

“Open standards have been around for 100 years,” Calista Redmond, CEO of RISC-V International, said in an interview. “It’s no different. »

Open-source technologies have generally benefited from exceptions to U.S. export controls. Any changes to this treatment “will certainly raise thorny legal questions and important public policy concerns,” said Daniel Pickard, a trade and national security attorney at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney.

Regulations and instructions

U.S. regulations restrict Arm and RISC-V companies from exporting chips to China based on certain performance limits. But trying to restrict the underlying instructions is like trying to control the words or letters, Silicon Valley executives said.

“It’s absolutely stupid,” said Dave Ditzel, chief technology officer of Esperanto Technologies, a chip startup that uses RISC-V. “It’s like saying China doesn’t have the right to export the underlying instructions. »

It’s like saying, “The Chinese can read a book about nuclear weapons written in English, so let’s solve the problem by banning the English alphabet.”

Dave Ditzel, director of Esperanto Technologies, which uses RISC-V

As RISC-V helps Chinese companies, including Huawei, design more semiconductors around the world, some U.S. officials worry that Beijing could use Chinese foundries to insert cyber vulnerabilities into chips, which could be used to cripple America’s power grids and other critical infrastructure.

Proponents of RISC-V counter that technologies whose internal details can be studied openly are much more secure. Any new restrictions, RISC-V supporters say, would weaken U.S. influence over the technology while doing little to restrain China because the instruction set is already widely distributed.

According to Handel Jones, an analyst at International Business Strategies, more than 100 “significant” Chinese companies are now designing chips with RISC-V, along with at least 100 other emerging companies. Most applications are for fairly mundane consumer products, but engineers believe the technology will eventually take over some of the most demanding tasks.

This article was originally published in the New York Times.


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