RISC-V and the Debate Over Open Standards

image: techcentral

As someone who values open-source technology and the potential for collaboration and innovation it enables, I have concerns about recent calls to restrict Chinese access and use of the open-source RISC-V instruction set architecture.

RISC-V was created to be free and openly accessible to all. By its very nature, open source thrives on widespread adoption and the contributions of global developers. Any attempt to curtail who can participate runs contrary to open-source open collaboration and knowledge-sharing principles.

Restricting RISC-V’s use in China could stifle innovation. Allowing many parties worldwide to work on improving the technology allows more ideas and improvements to be discovered through open participation. When we open doors for collaboration rather than close them, everyone benefits as technology advances faster.

There are also serious enforceability issues to consider. As an open standard freely available online, China or any country can build processors based on RISC-V without relying on external companies or licenses. It is unrealistic to think usage can be controlled in an open-source environment where information wants to be free.

Instead of restricting access, a better approach is to encourage American leadership in this open-source field. North American companies should actively contribute to RISC-V to help drive the technology strategically and partner with colleagues in China and elsewhere. Working together on open standards is a smarter path than drawing lines of separation.

In the end, restrictions may only motivate more independent innovation from those cut off from collaboration. They also risk damaging America’s reputation as a champion of open-source values. A wiser approach is embracing open exchange and using it to everyone’s mutual benefit. In technology, as in most matters, more openness tends to breed more opportunity, not less.

What is RISC-V?

RISC-V is an open-source instruction set architecture (ISA) based on established reduced instruction set computer (RISC) principles. It was originally developed at the University of California, Berkeley in 2010.

Some key points:

Why is the U.S. pissy about China excelling in RISC-V?

Loss of Technical Advantage: As RISC-V progresses, China stands to gain invaluable semiconductor expertise that could help narrow the gap with the U.S. and others over time. Wide adoption of RISC-V cores in China could accelerate this technology transfer.

Independence from US Technology: Relying less on proprietary architectures controlled by U.S. companies gives China more independence and self-reliance in strategic technology. This weakens US leverage and China’s reliance on potentially restricted US chips/IP.

Security and IP Concerns: The U.S. fears China’s cyber capabilities and policy of compelled technology transfer. RISC-V’s open model makes it harder to monitor international collaboration and control the flow of sensitive chip design IP.

Competition with US Suppliers: Aggressive development of RISC-V by Chinese firms could enable them to become alternative core suppliers, taking market share from established U.S. companies. This threatens domestic jobs and economic competitiveness.

Challenge to US Industrial Policy: Compared to closed platforms, a China-led RISC-V ecosystem is harder for the U.S. to influence or steer strategically. This weakens U.S. claims of technological leadership in a key industry.

So, in many ways, unfettered Chinese success with RISC-V runs counter to broader U.S. strategic aims of maintaining its semiconductor and cyber advantages over rivals like China. This likely spurred efforts to curb Beijing’s involvement and access to open architecture.

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