US probe into China's RISC-V role casts shadow on Samsung's AI chip ambitions and foundry biz expansion

Daniel Chiang, Taipei; Willis Ke, DIGITIMES Asia 0

Credit: Samsung

Samsung Electronics has been actively promoting the open-source instruction set architecture, RISC-V, as a crucial technology for developing next-generation AI chips. However, the ongoing investigation by the US Department of Commerce (DOC) into potential national security risks resulting from China's proactive involvement in RISC-V could hinder Samsung's RISC-V ecosystem development plans.

According to reports from Reuters and Seoul Economic Daily, the DOC is conducting probes into possible national security risks associated with China's significant presence in the RISC-V domain. In addition, they are also assessing possible countermeasures while highlighting the need to avoid harming US companies engaged in RISC-V development.

Industry analysts highlighted the need for the DOC to meticulously weigh the implications of any decisions it makes concerning RISC-V, given the involvement of numerous US companies in its development. This consideration is especially pertinent given the membership structure of RISC-V International, with leading entities like Qualcomm, Google, Intel, and Nvidia holding Premier Membership status. Notably, Chinese firms such as Alibaba, Huawei, Tencent, and ZTE are also Premier Members, while Samsung is currently a Strategic Member, one tier lower.

Presently, the primary Intellectual Properties (IPs) essential for Integrated Circuit (IC) design are Arm's Instruction Set Architecture (ISA) and Intel's x86 architecture, both requiring substantial royalties for use. In contrast, RISC-V offers an open-source alternative, significantly reducing the design costs of AI chips and simplifying the expansion of chip functions. Consequently, Chinese companies, as latecomers in the IC design field, are devoted to RISC-V research.

Samsung's RISC-V endeavors

For Samsung, if RISC-V can be used to develop AI accelerators, the company can reduce its reliance on Arm mobile CPUs for its Exynos series chips, address power consumption issues of the products, and lower production costs.

To incorporate RISC-V into IC design, Samsung recently founded an AI chip design R&D organization named "Advanced Processor Lab (APL)" in Silicon Valley. This initiative aims to expedite the development of Samsung's proprietary AI chips utilizing the open-source RISC-V architecture.

With the US initiating an investigation into RISC-V technology, the South Korean industry is apprehensive that Samsung's RISC-V IC design may hit snags just as it is getting started. Should major American tech players withdraw from RISC-V development under pressure from the US government, it would be difficult for Chinese and South Korean companies to independently produce CPUs that can rival Arm's offerings.

From a longer-term perspective, If the US government enforces restrictions on RISC-V adoption, it could also negatively impact Samsung's foundry business, especially given the importance of the Chinese market in the company's efforts to expand its foundry market share.

It is reported that Samsung is conducting trial production of server chips for Baidu, a Chinese web giant, at its 4nm foundry line in Pyeongtaek, South Korea. Baidu has already invested in the RISC-V company StarFive. Additionally, Samsung's first 3nm customer is a Chinese ASIC manufacturer for Bitcoin mining.

While Samsung has not yet taken a stance on the US investigation into RISC-V in China, foreign media analysts suggested that RISC-V will become a new focal point in the US-China hegemony struggle, and subsequent developments in this regard will be garnering significant attention.