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I’ve been trying to answer this question for a premise involving a cyborg being out of touch with modern civilization for a prolonged period of time, and the roadblock I keep hitting is that counter to what cyberpunk fiction tends to subtly imply, we just don’t build our technology to last a lifetime anymore. Even medically important items like prosthetics and basic implants (i.e. pacemakers) are not an exception to this. Most only last 5-10 years at most before needing to be replaced.

Now while I’m sure in a future where people are more extensively augmented/cyberized, we would have the ability to build longer-lasting prosthetics and implants. But... why would we? Look at how often new smartphones and other smart devices are updated or replaced by next generation hardware. Stuff like neural implants, the next evolution of the smartphone and similar technologies, will surely be no exception. Making implants that last a lifetime would be pointless, as new upgrades with superior functionality would be made available every few years. Plus, there’s capitalism to consider. Between the cost of the implants themselves and the microsurgery required to install them, corporations stand to make VASTLY more money by adopting an iPhone model of annual development and replacement.

Prosthetics are slightly less affected by this, as you can only enhance the functionality of a limb so much before you’re just providing incremental gains or adding unnecessary bells and whistles like “mantis blades”. Still, you’d expect those to be replaced by newer models fairly frequently as well, even if people can get by using their old ones for a few more years past expiration dates. Really though, we’re more concerned with the implants, as things like neural links, artificial organs, or other hidden upgrades stand a better chance of becoming a vital and necessary part of people’s lives, more valuable than a hand or even things like sight or hearing.

The only answers I can think of for why implants would be built to be longer-lasting would be either “because we can”, which I personally don’t like as an answer, or “because prosthetics/implants are part of basic government-provided healthcare”, which works better (especially if they’re installed at birth for free as a means of covertly monitoring the population and gathering personal data), but which still runs into the problem of the technology used to make these implants becoming obsolete eventually. What do you guys think? Are there any other reasons implants might be built to last? How long do you think somebody could reasonably keep using implants with planned obsolescence before they start breaking down or losing functionality?

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    $\begingroup$ It sounds like you are asking for opinions, and the body of your question doesn't exactly match the title. Please fix it. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Aug 24 at 17:13
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    $\begingroup$ We build a lot of things to last a long time, they are just rarer than they used to be. The Iphone model works because getting a new Iphone does not require surgery. Every surgery is a risk, In all likelihood such implants will be custom made so planned obsolescence will work against a the seller. $\endgroup$ – John Aug 24 at 17:19
  • $\begingroup$ 2 years because than your guarantee runs out and apple wants to sell the new generation with the bigger display to you. $\endgroup$ – World Peace Aug 24 at 18:14
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    $\begingroup$ Plutonium-238 has also been used successfully to power artificial heart pacemakers, to reduce the risk of repeated surgery. - Wikipedia article on plutonium; there's a link to an article "Nuclear pacemaker still energized after 34 years" (the link seems dead, though). $\endgroup$ – Headcrab Aug 26 at 0:31
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure I agree with your premise. I had both hips replaced. At that time, my doctors said they liked to get ten years out of a replacement hip. That was over twenty years ago, and they are both still in good shape. (We can see wear on X-rays, we will EVENTUALLY have to go in and do something, but not yet and probably not soon.) $\endgroup$ – John R. Strohm Aug 26 at 21:08

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Replacing them is (literally) a pain.

In real life, you could classify most prosthetics into two types - ones that go inside you (pacemaker, VP shunt), and ones you wear like clothing (hand, foot).

In a cyberpunk setting you often also have fictional ones that are partly inside the body, partly outside, and firmly attached to the skin somehow (ouch?) and possibly also bolted onto the skeleton (ouch!). This is more for "are you still human?" story angst than any realistic practical reasons - saying "he's more machine than man now" seems silly if he takes half the machines off to have a bath.

Only the prosthetics you take off are easy to replace. The others require surgery, with all its downsides: pain, scarring, time under anaesthesia, time off work to heal. Then there's the potential for infection, surgical mistakes, serious problems with anaesthesia.

If something can't be fixed without cutting me, I want it to last as long as possible. Especially if it's in my skull.

The only reason internal devices get replaced now is because we don't know how to make ones that last longer - something breaks, scar tissue builds up, the battery doesn't last, it gets clogged with biological material, etc. If some future technologies fixed those problems, they wouldn't be temporary.

If you want to upgrade your neural implants' capabilities later... wouldn't you rather have a long-lasting bluetooth implant in your brain that connects to an external phone you could replace regularly, instead of putting the whole phone in your head?

And then, when your hero's iPhone inevitably breaks, she can connect her neural Bluetooth to some other, more durable computer and still have some special abilities.

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    $\begingroup$ @SebastiaanvandenBroek Actually it's not decency but market in action: Nobody will buy something if another vendor sells the same but with a longer lifetime. Unless it is really too expensive - but since an OP is such an expensive and risky thing anyway, medical equipment tends to be at the end of high price and high quality. $\endgroup$ – toolforger Aug 25 at 17:13
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    $\begingroup$ If your stuff kills your customers, repeat sales are very difficult, with that being the least of your problems. $\endgroup$ – Nelson Aug 26 at 9:14
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    $\begingroup$ Note that not every person that needs an implant is going to be able to afford constant shiny replacements. There would be an obvious market niche for basic, common implants that were sturdy and specifically designed to last for a lifetime (with proper maintenance). The rich can afford the newest toys, while poorer people would have to make do with the equivalent of old brick flip-phones. $\endgroup$ – D.Spetz Aug 26 at 14:35
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    $\begingroup$ Artificial hearts are a great example; there is much, much excitement about the newer hearts that have much, much longer lifetimes (induction drive based hearts, if I got my technobable right). $\endgroup$ – Yakk Aug 26 at 15:02
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    $\begingroup$ To put it a different way the non-monetary cost of an implant is so large that no one is going to be willing to replace it unless there is a substantial improvement, (not iphone to iphone kind of changes but dial phone to iphone levels) , and even then many will be unwilling. $\endgroup$ – John Aug 26 at 18:49
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The closest thing I can imagine which is related to cybernetic implant is a pacemaker.

How long do they last?

Pacemakers usually last four to eight years. Biventricular pacemakers that are combined with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) do not tend to last as long -- about two to four years. The lifespan of the pacemaker depends on how much your heart is depending on it.

Let's assume that your devices are so advanced that they can double that lifetime: it gives you 8 to 16 years, depending on usage.

But the capitalism can thrive on the upgrades of the install: the socket/interface with the body is a one time surgery, but if it has something like a USB port, it can be plugged to any module developed over time.

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iron handIn your world, prosthetics last forever.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_hand_(prosthesis)#/media/File:Eiserne_Hand_Glasnegativ_6_cropped.jpg

You are right about technological innovations, profit motive and the like as regards tech in todays world. And you are writing a fiction which you want to be interesting. Different is interesting. I propose you make your tech immortal, like the iron hand depicted here. In your world, prosthetics are like cathedrals or aqueducts - constructs expected to outlive the current user(s) and be used by subsequent biologicals, indefinitely.

You would sidestep the issues of innovation and profit by having your prosthetics be of unusual provenance. Perhaps they are (or were) built by well-meaning aliens as contributions to humanity. Perhaps they are built by a secret technoreligious order whose motivations are obscure. Or perhaps they are built by the civilization ancestral to the one in your story - a dark age has intervened and the skills to build new ones are lost. Like 1950s American automobiles in communist Cuba, these old machines continue to work well and are superior to modern constructions; their users scrupulously maintain them.

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  • $\begingroup$ Well, these old cars are superior only in specific qualities. They are less safe in case of a crash, they require more fuel, they are louder, emit more noxious gases, they have lower acceleration and maximum speed, and probably a few other things as well. (Of course, not all of these things are true for all modern cars.) $\endgroup$ – toolforger Aug 25 at 17:17
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The corporations can rent/lease the augmentations instead of selling, so they can keep milking their customers, have a more stable cash flow when compared to yearly new models, and have incentives to think about durability because the parts aren't owned by the consumer but by the corporation. They can rent a turboarm v3.0 to first world customers for a few years and then replace them with the turboarm v4.0 in the first world and rent the used v3.0 in the third world for many more years, probably until it starts to break down. They will have to do some variable optimizations taking into account the profits from renting old parts and the cost of making them to last, but I think it is reasonable for a part to last 25 years: five in the first world, 20 in the third world.

PS.: be sure that the companies take sterelization seriously, both to kill the biological pathogens and the software ones if they are going to rent used parts or else you will have an AIDS-like crisis eventually.

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  • $\begingroup$ Unless there's some incredibly rare material needed or surgery drops in price dramatically, the cost of the implantation surgery will likely dwarf the cost of making the device. So it wouldn't make sense to design something cheap that can be implanted several times. $\endgroup$ – Rick Aug 26 at 16:37
  • $\begingroup$ Most cyberpunk scenarios tend to ignore the cost of augmentation surgery and post-operation procedures. It seems that the cirurgical technology is a lot more advanced then our current society. $\endgroup$ – Geronimo Aug 26 at 17:06
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When you have implants that may take over some of the necessary functions of life, which are implanted not out of medical necessity but for cosmetic purposes, the answer will depend upon one primary factor, and possibly a number of secondary factors.

The primary factor is going to be the regulatory environment. It is one thing if a life-saving implant only functions for a number of years, since without the implant, the patient would not likely have had those years, but it is another thing if the implant is not a medical necessity.

In a strict regulatory environment, any device implanted for non-life-saving reasons, whose failure would threaten the life of its recipient would of necessity be expected by law to last the expected lifetime of its recipient plus enough more that there would be no significant chance of a life-threatening failure within the recipient's lifetime - the reasoning being that changes in the recipient's fortunes may mean that they may never again have the opportunity for the device to be maintained or replaced. There may be an additional requirement that any non-threatening failure mode be covered by a statutory lifetime warranty.

In a less strict regulatory environment, there may still be a particular requirement that the device be expected to function for a significant period of time, possibly twenty years or more.

In either case, it would also likely be expected that the recipient and potentially also his/her doctors receive advanced warning that a failure has been predicted, probably with minimum warning periods ranging from at least one month to at least a full year, mandated by law.

However, the typical cyberpunk world is one in which corporate greed has supplanted, overtaken or sidestepped any regulatory oversight. However, even in such an environment, it can be expected that there will be certain standards that the corporations who manufacture such products will adhere to, for no other reason than pure self-intetest.

It does not serve the interests of a manufacturer of bioenhancements for negative attention to be drawn to them as a result of untimely failures of their cosmetic, non-life-saving products. Regulatory oversight may be absent or ineffectual, but as long as there is marketplace competition, in an environment where so many potential customers are connected to social media, fatal or untimely, crippling failures of bioenhancements would lead to unwelcome negative attention that would ultimately lead to a drop in sales and revenue.

When social media and not any regulatory body dictates the expected lifespan of cyberenhancements, how long can they be expected to last? That depends on factors such as the amount of warning of an imminent failure the user received, the terms of any warranty, and the amount of time the device lasted before failing. The social status of the victim of the failure would also be a significant factor - a dead celebrity is a disaster, while a dead homeless person is merely a statistic.

So, when social media rules, we can still expect cyberware to last a significant amount of time, perhaps twenty to thirty years at least. A celebrity may get an enhancement, and while they may be able to afford to have them serviced or upgraded regularly, there is no guarantee that they will do so, and should their enhancement fail in a fatal manner, the manufacturer will really want to be able to show that they repeatedly notified said deceased celebrity that their implant required service, and that they offered to provide said service at no monetary cost. Additionally, lest it be said that there are different rules for celebrities, these warranty and service terms would have to apply to all customers.

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Cochlear implants (CIs) are a lot like a neural implant and auditory brainstem impants (ABIs) are most definitely a neural implant. CIs have been around 50+ years and the implants electrodes are designed to last a lifetime. There have been significant enhancements to the electrode design over that time, but generally patients do not receive upgrades to the implanted portion. ABIs are a lot newer and while it is expected that the implant will last a lifetime, nobody really knows how the tissue will tolerate it and how it will hold up over 75+ years. CIs and ABIs both have external processors. These are frequently reprogrammed and often patients gets hardware upgrades. The reason the devices are split is that the surgery to implant the devices, especially ABIs, is non-trivial, and replacing the implanted electrodes carries risk and a high likelihood of diminished benefits due to tissue damage.

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What if your implants adapt to you over time? You grow into them, both figuratively and literally. They start off generic with baseline functionality, but over time adapt to your way of walking, moving, idiosyncrasies in your vascular or nervous systems, depending on the implant.

Replacing an implant with a new "blank" one might gain you a few new features but at a cost of losing the customisation you've spent year developing, and a resulting loss in overall performance.

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The most important part of the implant would be the socket; the actual body-machine interface. Fortunately the technology for connectors lasts longer (think of audio connectors and USB).

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It may not be a part of your personal cyberpunk vision, but in a high-tech fictional universe, you could justifiably have self-repairing (and maybe even self-upgrading) components based on nanorobotics technology. Specifically, the nanobots in your world could be injected in the cyborg's bloodstream and be used to "smartly" patch up damaged or faulty parts of existing implants. The implants themselves would basically last forever, as a kind of grandfather's axe / ship of Theseus if you will. Which by the way is not that different from how a human's biological body works (sans the lasting forever part, obviously).
EDIT: Not to go on a tangent, but here is some more info on cell replacement in our natural bodies.

You might even use the nanobots as a plot device: Let's say they get slowly used up and more or less safely ejected from the host body, and need to be replaced over time.

But even in a cyberpunk world, nanobots are sufficiently high tech to be a resource both rare and expensive - the knowledge of how to make them being a secret that is kept and vigilantly guarded by a very small number of ... entities (can they even be called humans anymore?). Entities so rich and powerful that it would take some serious cortical enhancement to merely grasp the expanse of their awesome capabilities.

As it happens, your protagonist falls on hard times and runs dangerously low on nanobots - nanobots that she needs to keep her essential, life-sustaining implants going. Close to despair and certain death, she receives a too-good-to-be-true offer from a shadowy figure: Enough bots to keep her going for a long time, in exchange for what appears to be a simple job ...

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The harsh reality is that in our world it's probably not going to be a reality. Not for the masses anyway. Long-lasting cybernetics will most likely be prohibitively expensive and only the very very wealthy will be able to afford them.

So we're just going to have to change the world.

First, let's produce some really simple large scale production of carbon forms like graphene, fullerenes and nanotubes leads to cheap carbon-based prostheses that last for decades. Chemically inert C240 molecules are as close to perfect spheres as we can manufacture and small enough that they make a near-perfect lubricant in an appropriate fluid suspension. Nanotubes can be matted, woven and so on and can be extremely durable... and are already being used in neural implants. And graphene of course is the next wonder material.

Next, nano-tech. No, not the grey goo kind, no floating clouds of nano-particles or tiny, tiny robots wandering around in your bloodstream. Those are going to have to wait for a few decades. Let's start with simple nano-scale engineering to do something useful with all those funky carbon forms... including, probably, producing them to order. Or assembling them into machines at a very small scale. We can also use it to assemble interesting materials like nanotube-reinforced metallic matrices that have high structural strength but low mass - the structural steel equivalent of aerogels.

And finally, power.

Either come up with a way for the body to power the cybernetics or use an integrated power source. Graphene super-capacitors are a good rechargeable power source, or the high density carbon electrode lithium batteries might do. You could use piezo-electric mesh in the major muscles of the body to produce electricity, or at a pinch a bunch of tiny turbines in the major arteries to turn blood flow into electrical power. Just don't over-draw on that one or your heart is probably going to be working too hard.

So now we have the materials and the power at a (hopefully) reasonable price, what's next? A reason to do it.

We have a lot of answers about why not, but only some minor mentions of why we would make long-life cybernetics worth the effort. And honestly it's a hard one.

I think the biggest reason is going to be the invasive and hugely stressful implantation surgery itself. While much of the cyberpunk fiction seems to have hyper-advanced implantation surgeries performed in grubby back-room chop shops, the reality is that for the foreseeable future this kind of surgery isn't going to be either cheap or easy. Sure, carbon-based interfaces seem to be a pretty good bet when it comes to long-term results, but we're a hell of a long way away from stopping in at a GP to have our arms lopped off and replaced with cybernetics.

The upshot of this is that when you do get a part replaced, you really really don't want to have to replace it ever couple of years. Even if you get a quick-change mount that lets you choose which arm best suits your evening wear choice, you don't want to have to go back and get it replaced. Ever. Hell, you want to be buried with that sucker when you finally kick it at 103. What you don't want is to be laid up for 8 weeks every 3-5 years after the major surgery to replace the damned things.

The downside? Extensive black market trade in 'slightly used' cybernetics.

Not all cybernetics are created equal. Of course there are going to be cheap-n-nasty parts, especially if quick-change mounts are popular. Look at the fashion industry for inspiration here: somebody builds a work of art for a celebrity and suddenly there are a thousand knock-offs available via mail order.

But military grade combat enhancements are going to be built - at ridiculous prices, of course - to very high grade. The military will train people and do the implantation, then replace them with civilian models when the person leaves active duty. The implants themselves will be recycled as long as they are serviceable, and guaranteed some desk jockey is going to point out that it's cheaper to spend \$5M on one piece that can be reused 10 times rather than 10 x \$1M for non-reusables.

So of course there will be 'repurposed' mil-spec gear available on the black market. And trained cyber-surgeons who are willing to do the work at their clinics that normally serve the cosmetic cybernetics clients.

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Allowing for the fact that implanting of cybernetic brain enhancing systems is already happening in certain labs, the product life cycle is not as large of a concern as the product security in my opinion. What happens when 50% of the worlds population is feed artificial memories by an AI system at the behest of communist China for example, or someone pushes a button and self destructs 100,000,000’s of implanted chips resulting in the death of the hosts? Before you connect to a hive brain by getting a chip installed in your head think about the downside.

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  • $\begingroup$ This doesn't actually answer the question. $\endgroup$ – John Montgomery Aug 26 at 23:57
  • $\begingroup$ I appreciate that you may be concerned about this, but this is a question and answer site, not a chat or opinion based forum. Your answer doesn't address the OP's concerns in the question, voting to delete as low quality. (From review) $\endgroup$ – We are Monica. Aug 27 at 0:52

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