HORIZONS

Scientists Broke a Major Computer Design Barrier — And It Could Change Tech As We Know It

New chip instructions could hasten the arrival of quantum computers and self-driving cars.

Written by Andrew Moseman
Central Computer Processor digital concept
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Even if you’ve never taken a coding class, you’ve probably heard of computer programming languages like Python, C++, JavaScript, and HTML. (Bonus points if you’re familiar with Swift and PHP.)

Engineers may debate the pros and cons of each nerdy language, but they all have something in common: Their instructions must morph into the lines of ones and zeros that a computer chip can understand and execute, allowing it to power everything from our emails to Netflix binges.

This process, which unfolds deep in the heart of computers, requires instruction set architecture (ISA) — essentially, this set of rules works as a translator between a computer’s hardware and software to help them communicate.

Inside our devices, ISA helps turn programming languages into ones and zeros.

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Over the past few decades, two ISAs have come to dominate electronic devices: x86, the most common instructions in personal computers, and ARM, which is made by a company of the same name and used in most mobile devices.

Both tend to be expensive because tech companies must pay hefty licensing fees to use them. And they only offer certain types of instructions set by a handful of manufacturers, including Intel and a Chinese company called Zhaoxin.

But a third player has joined the game — and it’s quickly upending the rules of the industry. Now, a free and open system called RISC-V could allow inventors’ imaginations to run wild — and it may even help usher in futuristic tech like quantum computers and self-driving cars.

The rise of RISC-V

Computer scientists at universities have long had to create their own instruction sets — but RISC-V now offers a free and customizable standard.

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Computer scientists created RISC-V at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2010. (It’s pronounced “risk-five,” with the letters standing for “reduced instruction set computer.”) At the time, professors were looking for a better way to teach students about computer architecture and design.

Before RISC-V, computer scientists working in academia often invented their own computer instruction sets for their research projects — to avoid legal, financial, and creative restrictions — which made it difficult to share their work, according to industry veteran Charlie Hauck, who is the CEO of BlueSpec, which manufactures RISC-V computer cores.

“We had this tower of Babel where nobody could communicate or do apples-to-apples comparisons,” he tells Inverse. “[The scientists at Berkeley] said, let's just fix this problem, and let's allow everybody to develop on a common instruction set architecture so we can compare and contrast.”

In recent years, RISC-V has left the ivory tower and entered the tech world — and it’s already making waves as a royalty-free set that essentially anyone can use in any form they see fit.

“We're an open standard,” Mark Himelstein, chief technology officer of RISC-V International, the organization dedicated to promoting the technology, tells Inverse. “Think of this as something like Wi-Fi or Bluetooth — it's just that the breadth of what we cover is a lot broader.”

But the rise of RISC-V isn’t simply for the underdogs. Google is a member of RISC-V international and says it will integrate the standard into Android smartphones and other devices. Intel is also on board, despite being the driving force behind the x86 ISA.

And the massive chip maker Qualcomm helped found the organization — in December, the company announced it had already shipped some 650 million RISC-V cores for mobile, automotive, extended reality, and internet of things (IoT) products.

“The really cool part is, you can customize it exactly to your needs,” Ziad Asghar, Qaulcomm’s senior vice president of product management for semiconductor products in mobile devices, tells Inverse. “You don't have to take something that's very rigid and already fixed in a particular way or designed for a certain application. You design exactly what you need to do.”

Longer-lasting tech

RISC-V could help our devices last longer — and save us money in the long run.

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RISC-V offers two distinct advantages that could spur more innovative products, Hauck says.

For one, RISC-V is relatively simple, he tells Inverse. When tech companies pay to license most proprietary ISAs, they can’t pick and choose which parts of the instructions they want — so they can come with loads of unnecessary information that may slow down devices.

But with RISC-V chips, device makers can customize their instructions. Without all the extra info in there, consumer electronics such as smartphones and computers — as well as also household appliances like dishwashers and refrigerators — could run on less energy, potentially extending battery life and saving people money in the long run.

What’s more, the RISC-V approach also allows companies to create entirely new instructions, Hauck explains. Such flexibility even excites the tech giants that could afford the ISA licensing fees in the first place.

A data storage company called Western Digital, for example, was one of the first to put RISC-V in a commercial device, Hauck says. In 2019, Western Digital announced it would begin using the system to invent its own instructions to make its drives faster and more efficient. You can even buy the world’s first laptop with a RISC-V processor, which went on sale this past fall.

Instructions for the future

The freedom and customizability provided by RISC-V could help speed up the development of futuristic tech.

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Beyond expanding the lives of our daily devices, RISC-V is also ideal for fledgling fields at the forefront of technology, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, cryptocurrency, and quantum computing, Hauck says.

This work requires as much computing horsepower as possible, but tech companies can’t assume that computer processors will keep improving fast enough to keep up with cutting-edge research. Instead, he says, new developments will need to rely on multiple kinds of processors at once — a goal that the researchers behind RISC-V had in mind.

RISC-V could also rev up progress on self-driving cars. Hauck points to companies like Ventana, which is building RISC-V chips to help tomorrow’s cars handle mountains of data as they whisk us around.

The Chinese tech behemoth Alibaba is even considering putting RISC-V in massive data servers, he says, but these instructions could also work for the tiniest of devices. “I hear about [integrations like] hearing aids and soldering irons,” he says. “You just look at that and you go, wow, this is amazing, you want to put a RISC-V processor there?”

Before these instructions can deliver on these lofty promises, plenty of challenges lie ahead. For instance, because it’s all relatively new, many of the accompanying technologies that will make up an entire RISC-V system still need to be invented.

Though that might make using RISC-V seem riskier than just dropping a proven system into new products, Asghar says companies are already building compatible components at every stage of the supply chain.

“Before RISC-V, there wasn't something like that where I think the whole industry had coalesced around it,” he says. “We have been watching it, investing in it for quite some time. But we invested in it knowing that this had legs. This is something that had potential.”

Himelstein compares early RISC-V embracers to the community that grew around Linux, a beloved open-source operating system created in the early ‘90s. Linux was never the most powerful OS, yet it has amassed millions of devoted users — from researchers to businesses to gamers — who can freely adapt it.

“People feel the same way around RISC-V,” he says. “It's their house, and they can do with it what they need to do.”

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