Chinese chip designers’ interest in the open-source RISC-V architecture is largely driven by increased Western sanctions and the ability of geopolitical opponents to influence the spread of other computing platforms. Over the past five years, Chinese organizations and companies have invested at least $50 million in RISC-V-related projects.
This is reported by Reuters with reference to our own research, covering the period from 2018 to 2023 inclusive and involving the analysis of scientific publications and patent applications, as well as public statements of various Chinese companies. The amount may not seem so significant, but the efforts of Chinese developers to develop this architecture have already led to the formation of public opinion, which consists of a positive assessment of the prospects of RISC-V from the point of view of the development of the national semiconductor industry of the PRC. For Chinese companies, this architecture will sooner or later become a viable alternative to Arm or x86-compatible solutions, according to Chinese authorities. They call this platform “geopolitically neutral.”
One of the patent applications, as explained by Reuters, demonstrates the intention of the PLA Academy of Military Sciences to use the RISC-V architecture to find defects in processors intended for use in cloud computing and smart cars. Chinese companies are developing RISC-V processors for use in cloud computing, vehicle autopilot and data centers. According to Chinese media, half of all 10 billion chips with this architecture released during 2022 were produced in China. With $1.18 billion spent supporting Chinese RISC-V startups as of last June, China is believed to have the most mature ecosystem for the RISC-V platform in the world.
If in 2018 Chinese developers filed only 10 patent applications related to RISC-V, then last year their number already exceeded 1,000. In terms of the number of registered patents in the RISC-V field, Chinese developers are ahead of American developers by about a quarter. Alibaba and Huawei are the fourth and fifth largest applicants in this space.
The RISC-V architecture originated in California last decade, but in 2019, after the imposition of sanctions against Huawei Technologies by the American authorities, the specialized non-profit organization moved its headquarters from Delaware to Switzerland. Chinese automaker Dongfeng Motor last year developed a chip with RISC-V architecture designed to control vehicle electronic systems. Local defense research organizations are also actively patenting their RISC-V-related technologies. For example, chips with such an architecture are proposed to be used for processing signals received from radars. In the field of cybersecurity, processors based on this architecture will also find application. However, on a global scale, chips with RISC-V architecture still form no more than 1.9% of shipments. Qualcomm representatives admitted that this architecture opens up certain prospects for those who want to develop “highly customized chips”.