A Significant Computer Design Barrier Was Broken by Scientists, and This Could Revolutionize Technology.

Even if you’ve never taken a coding course, you’ve probably heard of HTML, Python, C++, and other programming languages. (If you are comfortable with Swift and PPHP, bonus points.)

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Engineers may argue the merits of each geeky language, but they all share a similar requirement: their instructions must be translated into a series of lines of ones and zeros that a computer chip can comprehend and process, enabling it to power anything from our emails to Netflix binges.

Instruction set architecture (ISA) is necessary for this process, which takes place deep inside computers. In essence, this set of guidelines acts as a translator between a computer’s hardware and software to facilitate communication.

Two ISAs, x86, the most used instructions in personal computers, and ARM, produced by a business of the same name and used in the majority of mobile devices, have grown to rule electronic devices during the past few decades.


Due to the steep license fees that tech businesses must pay in order to utilize them, both are frequently pricey. Additionally, they are limited to a set of manufacturers’ instructions, including Intel and the Zhaoxin firm from China.


However, a third participant has entered the fray, quickly upending the established order. Now, a free and open platform called RISC-V might unleash the creative potential of inventors and pave the way for cutting-edge technology like quantum computers and self-driving vehicles.

Growth of RISC-V

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In 2010, computer scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, developed RISC-V. (It is pronounced “risk-five,” where the letters stand for “reduced instruction set computer.”) Professors at the time were looking for a more effective method of instructing students about computer architecture and design.


According to industry veteran Charlie Hauck, CEO of BlueSpec, which makes RISC-V computer cores, computer scientists working in academia frequently created their own computer instruction sets for their research projects before RISC-V to get around legal, financial, and creative limitations. This made it challenging to share their work.

Inverse quotes him as saying, “We had this tower of Babel where nobody could communicate or do apples-to-apples comparisons.” “Let’s just fix this problem, [the Berkeley scientists said], and let’s allow everyone to develop on a common instruction set architecture so we can compare and contrast,” they stated.

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As a royalty-free set that virtually anyone can use in any way they see fit, RISC-V has recently emerged from the ivory tower and entered the tech world. It is already making ripples.

Mark Himelstein, chief technical officer of RISC-V International, the company tasked with pushing the technology, tells Inverse that “we’re an open standard.” Think of this as being similar to Wi-Fi or Bluetooth; however, the scope of what we cover is far wider.


However, the emergence of RISC-V isn’t just beneficial to underdogs. According to Google, which is a member of RISC-V International, Android smartphones and other devices will incorporate the standard. Despite being the major force behind the x86 ISA, Intel is also on board.

The group was also founded by Qualcomm, a major semiconductor manufacturer that in December reported having sold 650 million RISC-V cores for use in mobile, automotive, extended reality, and internet of things (IoT) applications.


According to Ziad Asghar, senior vice president of product management for semiconductor products in mobile devices at Qaulcomm, “the really cool part is that you can customize it exactly to your needs.” “You don’t have to use anything that is extremely stiff, fixed in a specific way, or created for a specific application. You plan out everything you have to do.

Lasting technology

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According to Hauck, RISC-V has two key benefits that could encourage the development of more inventive products.


He tells Inverse that one benefit of RISC-V is its simplicity. When tech companies pay to license most proprietary ISAs, they are unable to pick and choose whatever instructions they want, therefore the instructions may contain a lot of extra information that could slow down devices.

But device manufacturers can tailor their instructions with RISC-V chips. Consumer goods like smartphones and computers, as well as home appliances like refrigerators and dishwashers, may use less energy if all that unnecessary information were removed, thus increasing battery life and ultimately costing less money.


Additionally, according to Hauck, the RISC-V strategy enables businesses to develop completely original instructions.

For instance, Hauck cites Western Digital as one of the first companies to integrate RISC-V into a product for sale. Western Digital indicated in 2019 that it would start utilizing the technology to create its own instructions to speed up and optimize its drives. Even the first laptop in the world with a RISC-V processor, which went on market this past fall, is available for purchase.


Guidelines for the future

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RISC-V is suitable for nascent fields at the cutting edge of technology, such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, cryptocurrencies, and quantum computing, says Hauck, in addition to extending the lives of our everyday electronics.


The computational power needed for this activity must be as high as possible, but tech businesses cannot presume that chip technology will advance quickly enough.

RISC-V might accelerate the development of self-driving cars. Hauck cites businesses like Ventana, which is developing RISC-V chips to aid the cars of the future in handling mountains of data as they transport us.

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.”

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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, he says, yet it has amassed millions of devoted users — from researchers to businesses to gamers. “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.” These are the innovations of today that will shape the world of tomorrow. Subscribe for free to Inverse’s weekly HORIZONS newsletter.

Prosper Dougoli

Prosper Dougoli, also known as a Bomzydget, is a young Ghanaian tech content creator with extensive experience in Internet blogging.

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