Last week I was introduced to a new sense of the old word prompt, which comes from Latin promere (to bring forth) and has a long history in English, from its 15th-century beginnings as a verb (to urge, to incite to action) and modifier (immediate, without delay) to its extended senses in theater (noun: a reminder to an actor) and particle physics (adjective: emitted within a very short time interval). The novel usage—not just to me, but to the world at large—is prompt engineer and prompt engineering, new job descriptions within the field of artificial intelligence (AI). Prompt engineers aren’t gearheads who show up on time; they’re a new breed of communication professionals.
I discovered prompt engineer via a tweet from Jeff Jarvis, who teaches at CUNY’s journalism school.
Two weeks ago on Medium I said we would soon be teaching.studenta prompt writing. Well, here's a job as a "prompt engineer."https://t.co/wzOGUbdEfd— Jeff Jarvis (@jeffjarvis) January 25, 2023
Here’s the link to Jarvis’s story on Medium. And here’s the link to Rachel Woods’s January 23 TikTok about “the first prompt engineering job description that I’ve seen publicly.” The actual job description, from San Francisco-based AI startup Anthropic, is here. Here’s an excerpt:
Given that the field of prompt-engineering is arguably less than 2 years old, this position is a bit hard to hire for! If you have existing projects that demonstrate prompt engineering on LLMs [large language models] or image generation models, we’d love to see them. If you haven’t done much in the way of prompt engineering yet, you can best demonstrate your prompt engineering skills by spending some time experimenting with Claude or GPT3 and showing that you’ve managed to get complex behaviors from a series of well crafted prompts.
Here’s what stands out for me about this job listing (besides the nice name—Anthropic suggests both “human” and “science,” and it rhymes with “topic”—and eye-popping salary range: $250,000 to $335,000). First, it’s interesting that this position is called “prompt engineer” rather than “prompt designer” or “prompt writer”: Very little engineering experience is required, and the job is really more about language and communication than coding. But hey, engineers make lots more money than mere writers and designers!
Second, this sense of prompt builds on an existing (but still relatively recent) sense of prompt as it’s used in writing classes. A writing prompt “guides and focuses your writing content”; it’s often a question rather than a statement. (Writing prompts can be pretty far-fetched, as in this example from a writers’ website: “Write a final page of a story using the words marshmallow, New Year’s Eve, thunderstorm, old-fashioned, and tart.”) In conversational AI such as ChatGPT, a prompt is “how humans can talk to AIs.” And it’s done with text rather than with strings of code.
Image via Liat Ben-Zur: “Prompt Engineering: The Future of Non-Programming Languages”
Once I became aware of prompt engineering I started seeing the term everywhere. There are YouTube explainers and LinkedIn explainers; a London (UK) startup called PromptBase, launched in June 2022, sells prompts for $1.99 each. (According to a July 2022 TechCrunch article, PromptBase takes a 20 percent cut. The article also goes into fascinating detail about “problematic prompts.”)
According to a Wikipedia entry, the AI sense of prompt appears to have been first used in 2019; the earliest use of prompt engineer I was able to find is in a May 2021 story on Medium by Shubham Saboo, “Prompt Engineering: The Career of Future”: “Creating AI solutions has never been easy but with GPT-3 all you need is a sensible training prompt in plain english language.”
A lot of new job titles strike me as slightly farcical: customer success manager, code sensei, scooter juicer, chief happiness officer, director of awesome. But prompt engineer is different. At last, it seems, people who understand how language works are getting some well-earned recognition—and some serious compensation. A win for the word nerds!
My 2010 post about TelePrompTer and “telepalmter”
My Medium story “Can you create brand names with ChatGPT?”
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