What is prompt engineering?

Kwami Ahiabenu ll
4 min readApr 28, 2024

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Generative AI is growing in popularity due especially to the advancement in one of its underlying technologies, prompt engineering. According to McKinsey, half of today’s work activities may be automated between 2030 and 2060 showcasing the significant growth of AI.

The dividing line between traditional software and generative artificial intelligence models is the ability of AI to respond to everyday language responses. The ability of AI models to have a better ability to respond to such requests is premised on “prompt engineering”. In simple terms, a prompt is a clear instruction written in natural language which enables AI models to perform a set of tasks. For example, when requesting an AI model to write a fundraising proposal, translate languages or offer ideas for a marketing campaign, therefore, the prompt triggers the AI to undertake complex processing which contributes to better and more accurate outcomes.

Generative AI models’ applications are usually built on foundation models, which typically can process massive sets of unstructured data based on very large machine learning (ML) models that use deep neural networks through pretraining. These models are then trained so that they can perform specific tasks including providing answers to questions, segmentation, summarising, editing and even creating new content. Generative AI is trained to mimic humans, however, their ability to do so is through the provision of detailed clear instructions and context, which can translate into useful high-quality output. The main principle is that better input leads to better outputs and prompt engineering sits at the centre of this principle.

Prompt engineering can be described as the process whereby a prompt engineer guides the AI system to generate desirable solutions. The process involves the creation of a combination of input texts such as appropriate keywords, images, formats, and symbols which through a process of trial-and-error guide gen AI to interact with users by providing them meaningful outputs. AI models can produce clear-cut results based on online reasoning including explanations and more systematic steps in generating results. Similar to asking a human a question, more specific and clear questions can lead to better outputs.

The principle of generative AI is anchored on the notion that better inputs can lead to better results and prompts, giving rise to the concept of prompt engineering. AI models generally perform better in terms of task performance if they are trained with better inputs. Therefore, the characteristic of a good prompt is its ability to optimally interact with other inputs, working in sync within a generative AI tool.

To deploy gen AI within an organisation, there are two options available, either the organisation builds from scratch, which is very expensive, or integrates gen AI tools into the organisation using off-the-shelf gen AI models which invariably must be trained to meet peculiar use cases. Given this context, there is a surge in the hiring of prompt engineers, who help organisations capture value using gen AI to improve productivity and enhance efficiency.

Several prompt engineering techniques can be utilised to improve the output of AI models’ capabilities to undertake natural language processing (NLP) tasks, namely chain-of-thought prompting, which is based on breaking down complex questions into smaller logical units akin to a train of thought. Another technique is known as tree-of-thought prompting which builds on chain-of-thought prompting by generating one or more possible next steps using the tree search method.

Maieutic prompting is another technique which is like tree-of-thought prompting but differs because this prompt provides answers to a question with an explanation that deals with WHY questions. Complexity-based prompting technique includes the performance of several chain-of-thought processes with the deployment of the longest chains of thought utilised as the path to conclude. Lastly, generated knowledge prompting is a two-step process where the first step generates relevant facts followed by a second step of completing the prompt leading to better quality outputs. Other techniques are least-to-most prompting, self-refine prompting, and directional-stimulus prompting.

Types of prompt engineering jobs could include code Generator, output testing and general or specialized. Without prompt engineering, users must learn complex methods of interacting with AI. It is important to point out that, the output of prompt engineering is reusable in different contexts and the based on open-ended user queries.

For prompt engineering to work well, there is the need to generate unambiguous prompts, provide adequate context within the prompt, experiment and refine the prompt and ensure balance between input and desired output. Common challenges with AI prompt engineering could include data quality and quantity, model interpretability and ethical considerations.

In conclusion, prompt engineering is now established, its dynamic and evolving nature requires deep linguistic skills, technical and creativity to improve the quality of its output. The utility of gen AI is intricate to effective and efficient prompt engineering, making it an important subject in a fast-growing digital society which is increasingly relying on artificial Intelligence.

The writer is a Tech Innovations Consultant. He can be reached via Kwami AT mangokope.com

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