RISC-V Central to US-China Tech War

by Carolyn Mathas

The Biden administration is getting pressure from lawmakers to restrict American companies from working on a freely available chip technology widely used in China. RISC-V, an open-source technology, competes with costly proprietary technology from British semiconductor company Arm Holdings. The technology is used in a wide range of products, from smartphone chips to advanced AI processors.

The lawmakers, including Marco Rubio and Mark Warner, say that Beijing is exploiting a culture of open collaboration among American companies to advance its own semiconductor industry. This is the first major effort to constrain work by U.S. companies on RISC-V.

Mike Gallagher, chairman of the House Select Committee on China, said that the Commerce Department needs to “require any American person or company to receive an export license prior to engaging with PRC (People’s Republic of China) entities on RISC-V technology.” According to Warner, current export-control laws are not equipped to deal with the challenge of open-source software in advanced semiconductor designs like RISC-V and AI.

The RISC-V technology originated at the University of California, Berkeley, and was later funded by DARPA. It’s compared to Ethernet, USB, and the internet, freely available, and is based on contributions from around the world to make innovation faster and cheaper.

Huawei Technologies has embraced RISC-V, and the U.S. and its allies have also jumped on the technology. Qualcomm is working with a group of European automotive firms on RISC-V chips, and Alphabet’s Google says it will make Android, the world’s most popular mobile operating system, work on RISC-V chips.

Regulation will impact how American and Chinese companies work together on open technical standards. It will also create hurdles for China’s pursuit of chip self-sufficiency and aid the U.S. and European efforts to develop cheaper and more versatile chips.

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