But the silicon switches in your laptop’s central processor don’t inherently understand the word “for” or the symbol “=.” For a chip to execute your Python code, software must translate these words and symbols into instructions a chip can use.
Engineers designate specific binary sequences to prompt the hardware to perform certain actions. The code “100000,” for example, could order a chip to add two numbers, while the code “100100” could ask it to copy a piece of data. These binary sequences form the chip’s fundamental vocabulary, known as the computer’s instruction set.
For years, the chip industry has relied on a variety of proprietary instruction sets. Two major types dominate the market today: x86, which is used by Intel and AMD, and Arm, made by the company of the same name. Companies must license these instruction sets—which can cost millions of dollars for a single design. And because x86 and Arm chips speak different languages, software developers must make a version of the same app to suit each instruction set.
Lately, though, many hardware and software companies worldwide have begun to converge around a publicly available instruction set known as RISC-V. It’s a shift that could radically change the chip industry. RISC-V proponents say that this instruction set makes computer chip design more accessible to smaller companies and budding entrepreneurs by liberating them from costly licensing fees.
“There are already billions of RISC-V-based cores out there, in everything from earbuds all the way up to cloud servers,” says Mark Himelstein, the CTO of RISC-V International, a nonprofit supporting the technology.
In February 2022, Intel itself pledged $1 billion to develop the RISC-V ecosystem, along with other priorities. While Himelstein predicts it will take a few years before RISC-V chips are widespread among personal computers, the first laptop with a RISC-V chip, the Roma by Xcalibyte and DeepComputing, became available in June for pre-order.
What is RISC-V?
You can think of RISC-V (pronounced “risk five”) as a set of design norms, like Bluetooth, for computer chips. It’s known as an “open standard.” That means anyone—you, me, Intel—can participate in the development of those standards. In addition, anyone can design a computer chip based on RISC-V’s instruction set. Those chips would then be able to execute any software designed for RISC-V. (Note that technology based on an “open standard” differs from “open-source” technology. An open standard typically designates technology specifications, whereas “open source” generally refers to software whose source code is freely available for reference and use.)
A group of computer scientists at UC Berkeley developed the basis for RISC-V in 2010 as a teaching tool for chip design. Proprietary central processing units (CPUs) were too complicated and opaque for students to learn from. RISC-V’s creators made the instruction set public and soon found themselves fielding questions about it. By 2015, a group of academic institutions and companies, including Google and IBM, founded RISC-V International to standardize the instruction set.