Let’s begin with the term “generative AI.” McKinsey Explainers concisely describes it this way: “Generative artificial intelligence (AI) describes algorithms (such as ChatGPT) that can be used to create new content, including audio, code, images, text, simulations and videos. Recent breakthroughs in the field have the potential to drastically change the way we approach content creation.” In common practice, many simply generalize all such apps under the single name of ChatGPT, the application developed by the nonprofit—although heavily funded by Microsoft—OpenAI. Yet the category includes Bard, Perplexity.ai, You.com, Bing Chat and a host of other apps. In all cases, however, they require an input in the form of a prompt that describes what task the application is to perform. It is the quality and detail of the prompt that determines the quality and relevance of the output.
The writing of prompts is both an art and a science. It requires you to write as if you were writing or speaking to an intelligent colleague while taking little shared background for granted. David Gewirtz of ZDNet writes, “When talking to a person, it would be natural to expect someone to miss your point initially and require clarification. It would be natural for someone you’re talking to to veer away from the topic at hand and need to be wrangled back on topic. It would be natural to fill in the backstory and ask complex questions, and it would also be natural to have to dig in, restating some of those questions based on the answers you got back.” So, as you compose your first prompt in the conversation, be as clear as you can, including background, even noting what you do not want in the response, and be ready to post follow-up prompts to refine the output. One of my favorite generative-AI applications is Perplexity.ai, which automatically supplies three possible follow-up prompts that may give you the additional information you may be seeking.
Neuroflash, a leading European text and image generator, recommends that you craft your prompts to be precise and clear. Avoid long sentences with many subpoints; instead, use short sentences that are easy to understand. Always try to ask specific questions that explain the context of the question.
At this early point in the advent of generative-AI apps, many users simply enter the same very brief text they are accustomed to entering into Google Search, Bing or other search engines. However, much of the power of generative AI comes in the ability of apps to customize the responses to the specific intended application of the results. The Decoder, a German-based digital publication on AI science, politics and business, developed a list of 10 prompt strategies. Among their top strategies are:
- Define ChatGPT’s role: Linux terminal, philosopher, tea taster or Bible translator—ChatGPT can play all these roles and many more.
- Define target group and communication channel: To avoid tedious rewriting, either manually or through another prompt, you should give ChatGPT as much information as possible.
- Chained prompting: A central aspect of getting ChatGPT to do what you want it to do is chained prompting.
- Modify output: Even if you have followed all of the previous advice, you may want to prepare the same content for different channels, such as LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook.
Karrar Haider, writing in GeekFlare, reminds us of even more ways in which prompts can create unique, customized results, including: “Use a witty tone while replying” or “Be comprehensive in your replies and give at least 3 examples.” Or you can ask the app to respond as if it were a professional in any specified field. Remember of course, the app is fluent in many languages.
The nominal limit for responses in ChatGPT is about 500 words per prompt. That may be too short for your purposes. As Fionna Agomuoh suggests in Digital Trends, “To remedy this issue, you can use simple prompts such as ‘go on,’ ‘keep going’ or ‘continue.’ For example, I inputted the query to write me a 1,000-word essay on the history of Irish whiskey, and ChatGPT cut off midsentence at about 618 words. After inputting ‘go on,’ ChatGPT continued generating my essay and ended at 1,043 words.”
Particularly for those of us in higher education, it is important to have citations in our work to provide further information and validate the information we have communicated. Some generative-AI apps such as Perplexity.ai and You.com automatically include links to sources within the text of their responses; ChatGPT notably does not. That does not mean you cannot get citations from ChatGPT. ZDNet’s senior contributing editor Gewirtz recommends that you follow the response to your prompt with the request to provide sources for the previous response. You may want to qualify that request by asking for URL sources so you can immediately dig into the material to verify facts or find additional information.
Daily rapid development of the technology continues. The newly developed Auto-GPT has the ability to pursue a stated outcome by writing its own prompts and sequentially executing them. However, even this days-old technology needs a well-crafted, precisely formulated outcome statement to begin its autonomous mission.
This article is far from a comprehensive discussion of generative-AI prompts. Much more is to be learned by those who seek to become a “prompt engineer.” The rapidly growing new career field is commanding high salaries without requiring high-tech degrees. The emphasis is on clear and comprehensive writing and problem solving. As written recently in Business Insider, “AI ‘prompt engineer’ jobs can pay up to $335,000 a year and don’t always require a background in tech.” Perhaps university English department faculty members and continuing education unit staff members should consider preparing themselves and their learners for these lucrative emerging positions!