The next front in the US-China fight over chips

The next front in the US-China fight over chips

NASA has chosen the technology to help land future spacecraft on unmapped planets. Meta uses technology for artificial intelligence. Chinese engineers have turned to it to encrypt data.

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

The technology is RISC-V, pronounced “risk five”. It evolved from a university computer lab in California as the foundation for myriad chips that handle computing tasks. RISC-V essentially provides a kind of common language for designing processors that are found in devices like smartphones, disk drives, Wi-Fi routers, and tablets.

RISC-V has sparked a new debate in Washington in recent months about how far the United States can or should go as it steadily increases restrictions on exporting technology to China that could help advance its military. Can do. This is because RISC-V, which can be downloaded for free from the Internet, has become a central tool for Chinese companies and government institutions. Hope to match American skills In designing semiconductors.

Last month, the House Select Committee on the Chinese Communist Party – in an effort led by Republican Representative Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin – recommended That an interagency government committee study the potential risks of RISC-V. Congressional aides have met with members of the Biden administration about the technology, and according to congressional staff members, lawmakers and their aides have discussed increasing sanctions to prevent U.S. citizens from assisting China on RISC-V. Is of.

Representative Raja Krishnamurthy of Illinois, the ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Security, said in a statement that the Chinese Communist Party is “already attempting to use RISC-V’s design architecture to undermine our export controls.” He said RISC-V participants should focus on advancing the technology and not “on the geopolitical interests of the Chinese Communist Party.”

Arm Holdings, a British company that sells competing chip technology, has also lobbied authorities to consider restrictions on RISC-V, three people with knowledge of the situation said. Biden administration officials have concerns about China’s use of RISC-V, but are wary about potential complications in trying to regulate 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 patterned after open-source software, free programs such as Linux that allow any developer to view and modify the original code used to create them. Such programs have inspired many competitors to innovate and reduce the market power of any one seller.

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

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

The group changed its incorporation from the United States to Switzerland in 2020 to calm “concerns of political interference” and control by any one country. Its leaders said their model mirrors other international groups that control standard technologies like Ethernet and Wi-Fi.

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

Open-source technologies are generally exempt from US export controls. Any change in that treatment “is certainly going to raise thorny legal issues and significant public policy concerns,” said Daniel Picard, a lawyer specializing in trade and national security at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney.

US regulations prevent Arm and RISC-V companies from exporting chip designs to China based on certain performance limitations. But Silicon Valley executives said trying to restrict built-in instructions is like trying to control words or letters.

“This is absolutely silly,” said Dave Dietzel, chief technology officer at Esperanto Technologies, a chip start-up that uses RISC-V. “It’s like saying, ‘Okay, the Chinese can read a book written in English on nuclear weapons, so let’s solve the problem by banning the English alphabet.'”

As RISC-V helps Chinese companies including Huawei design more of the world’s semiconductors, some US officials have raised concerns that Beijing could use Chinese foundries. Include Cyber ​​Vulnerabilities In chips that could be used to undermine the US electrical grid and other critical infrastructure.

RISC-V proponents argue that technologies with internal details that can be studied openly are more secure. RISC-V proponents said any new restrictions would weaken US influence over the technology, while doing little to stop China because the instruction set is already widely distributed.

The original motivation for RISC-V was to save money. In 2010, a professor and two graduate students began developing a new instruction set based on technology pioneered by David Patterson, a computer science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who helped invent reduced instruction set computing, or RISC. . Its purpose was to help study the inner workings of computing without paying Arm, which charges royalties for every chip that uses its technology.

“I just wanted to learn how to build computers,” said Yunsup Lee, one of the graduate students, who now works at SiFive, a start-up that sells RISC-V designs. The goal then evolved “to benefit everyone in the world,” he said.

The RISC-V version rapidly attracted interest among engineers. Having a standard set of instructions allows software programs to work on all chips that use them.

In China, engineers and officials also quickly sensed the potential, seeing open-source technology as a way to become self-reliant and counter risks such as sanctions and supply disruptions, said Ni Guangnan, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. written in an article About RISC-V in June.

In 2019, Mr. Patterson, who now works at Google, helped set up a RISC-V lab in Shenzhen, China, which was supported by an institute previously established by Berkeley and Tsinghua University in China. Representative Gallagher, in a video His committee, released in November, expressed concerns about the professor’s work and collaboration between the institute and organizations linked to Chinese military and intelligence activities.

Mr. Patterson declined to comment through a Google spokesman.

A spokesperson for UC Berkeley said that the university’s work with the institute was basic research that was unrestricted, and that the university was responding to requests for information from Congress.

More than 100 “significant” Chinese companies are designing chips with RISC-V today, along with at least 100 more start-ups, said Handel Jones, an analyst at International Business Strategies. Many of the applications are in fairly ordinary consumer products, but engineers believe the technology will eventually handle some of the most demanding tasks.

Chinese aerospace scientist has proposed Using RISC-V to develop high-performance space-borne computers. Other Chinese companies and institutions are aiming to bring together RISC-V processors to run larger jobs in data centers, including AI applications.

At the RISC-V conference in Silicon Valley in November, Alibaba’s semiconductor subsidiary T-Head discussed RISC-V designs that another Chinese company, Sofgo, has developed for a chip powering a large server deployed at Shandong University in China. Was used in. The companies said this is the first example of a cloud-style computing service being run by RISC-V technology.

“We’ve just taken a small step, but we’ve put RISC-V on the starting line,” David Chen, Alibaba’s ecosystem director, said at the event.

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