These simple design rules could shake up the chip industry

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But the silicon switches of the laptop’s CPU don’t understand the word “for” or the “=” sign. For the chip to execute Python code, software must translate these words and symbols into instructions that the chip can use.

Engineers specify specific binary sequences to prompt hardware to perform certain actions. For example, the code “100000” could instruct the chip to add two numbers, while the code “100100” could instruct the chip to copy a chunk of data. These binary sequences make up the chip’s basic vocabulary, called the computer’s instruction set.

Over the years, the chip industry has relied on various proprietary sets of guidelines. Two main types dominate the market today: x86, used by Intel and AMD, and Arm, produced by the same company. Companies must license these instruction sets, which cost millions of dollars per design. Also, because x86 and Arm chips speak different languages, software developers must create a version of the same application that matches each instruction set.

Recently, however, many hardware and software companies around the world have begun to integrate a publicly available instruction set known as RISC-V. It’s a change that could revolutionize the chip industry. RISC-V supporters claim that this set of instructions will make computer chip design more affordable by freeing small businesses and startups from expensive licensing fees.

“There are billions of RISC-V-based cores in everything from headsets to cloud servers,” says Mark Himelstein, CTO of RISC-V International, a non-profit organization that supports the technology.

In February 2022, Intel pledged $1 billion to develop the RISC-V ecosystem, among other priorities. While Himelstein predicts that it will be several years before RISC-V chips become mainstream among personal computers, the first laptops with a RISC-V chip, ROMs from Xcalibyte and DeepComputing, became available for pre-order in June.

What is RISC-V?

RISC-V (pronounced “risk five”) can be thought of as a set of design standards, like Bluetooth for computer chips. This is called an “open standard”. This means that anyone – you, me, Intel – can participate in the development of these standards. Additionally, anyone can design a computer chip based on the RISC-V instruction set. These chips can run any software designed for RISC-V. (Note that technology based on an “open standard” is different from “open source” technology. An open standard usually refers to the technical specifications of the technology, while “open source” usually refers to software whose source code is freely available for reference and use.)

A team of computer scientists at UC Berkeley developed the RISC-V framework in 2010 as a tutorial for chip design. Proprietary central processing units (CPUs) were too complex and confusing for students to learn. The RISC-V developers made the instruction set public and soon answered questions about it. In 2015, a group of academic institutions and companies, including Google and IBM, founded RISC-V International to standardize the instruction set.

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