19-04-2022 | | By Robin Mitchell
What started out as a project to create an open-source processor technology has rapidly accelerated into a solution for those facing sanctions, restrictions, and limitations. What limitations does the east face, how does RISC-V solve these challenges, and is this a good time to halt RISC-V development?
If there is one fact of life that holds true, it’s that semiconductors have become the backbone of modern society. A country that lacks access to semiconductors cannot connect to the rest of the world via the internet. It cannot use electronics to automate processes, its citizens cannot use mobile devices, and banking would have to be done entirely on paper.
Now, there are very few nations (if any) that have no access to any semiconductors whatsoever. Just about every country in the world can trade with at least one other nation that has such access to technology. However, what is becoming increasingly regulated is access to cutting-edge technology that allows for the latest algorithms to run effectively.
Such regulations are almost exclusively put in place to limit foreign nations’ abilities to develop defence technologies. For example, IR cameras with a high framerate are carefully controlled as they can be used in heat-seeking missiles, high-end server processors can allow for advanced defence networks, and military-grade flight controllers may be used in long-range missiles.
This brings us to the question of why a few major players in the east face such restrictions on semiconductor technology? While there are many nations in the east considered friendly (such as Japan, South Korea, India etc.), there are four major countries that could easily be argued as being problematic in world security: Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran.
While these countries greatly vary in language and culture, they all have elements of a dictatorship, whether its Putin’s abuse of the Russian constitution to stay in power, Xi Jingping’s lifetime position as the leader of China, Kim Jong-Un’s actual dictatorship, and Ali Khamenei’s supreme leader position. This type of rule allows for all kinds of policies and actions to be made at short notice, and this has been seen with the invasion of Ukraine, firing of missiles into the sovereign territory, use of technology to control their population, or insistence that their nuclear program is for research purposes only while making claims that they will use their weapons to destroy neighbours.
Thus, these nations are increasingly facing tighter restrictions on semiconductor access, and this is now having real-world consequences concerning their defence and technological capabilities.
Of all modern semiconductors in production, it could be argued that processors are one of the most important. All of the aforementioned can easily get access to memory, bus controllers, sensors, and wireless modules, but only a few places in the world can manufacture processors capable of executing cutting-edge algorithms.
However, nothing stops these countries from developing their own processors and using a third-party foundry (such as TSMC) for manufacturing them. Of course, this requires engineers who understand microcomputing architecture and VLSI. Even if this is available, the final processor may not be compatible with pre-existing software solutions, compilers, and libraries. Attempting to create processors that use patented technologies such as x86 and ARM could see foundries refuse to manufacture devices in fear of being prosecuted.
This is where RISC-V comes in. While RISC-V only describes an architecture, anyone is free to integrate it into their own custom devices. Furthermore, a device that follows the RISC-V standard will be able to compute RISC-V software written by others. Therefore, countries that switch to RISC-V would be able to get around restrictions on technology access if that technology is made open-source. While the US may be able to restrict physical products from being shipped from one location to another, it cannot stop the transfer of information on a widely available architecture that is open to the public.
As backwards as it may sound, there is a very good argument to be made that the development of RISC-V should be halted. It won’t be long before someone develops a RISC-V implementation whose design is released to the general public for anyone to use. When this happens, everyone would have access to an open-source core using an open-source code standard, which will likely further fuel the desire for RISC-V.
This increased use of RISC-V will see large software companies such as Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple develop solutions that work on RISC-V. At this point, it will be virtually impossible to stop countries from accessing RISC-V processor technologies and software that relies upon it. Furthermore, whatever processors are developed in-house based on the RISC-V specification will be software-compatible with pre-existing solutions, accelerating the development of new technologies.
So, should RISC-V development be halted? The likely answer to this question is no. This comes down to the fact that the most significant limitation to countries in the east isn’t software or processor architecture but getting access to physical foundries whose fabrication technology is far too difficult to copy. Thus, even if a “banned country” wanted to manufacture the world’s fastest RISC-V processor using 5nm technology, the world’s few foundries capable of producing such a device would most likely ignore the request.
Overall, RISC-V is an exciting technology that will help drive a new generation of microcontrollers and microprocessors free from licensing and patents.