AI Prompt Engineering Is Dead

Since ChatGPT dropped in the fall of 2022, everyone and their donkey has tried their hand at prompt engineering—finding a clever way to phrase your query to a large-language model (LLM) or AI art or video generator to get the best results or side-step protections. The internet is replete with prompt engineering guides, cheat sheets and advice threads to help you get the most out of an LLM.

In the commercial sector, companies are now wrangling LLMs to build product co-pilots, automate tedious work, create personal assistants, and more, says Austin Henley, a former Microsoft employee who conducted a series of interviews with people developing LLM-powered co-pilots. “Every business is trying to use it for virtually every use case that they can imagine,” Henley says.

“The only real trend may be no trend. What’s best for any given model, dataset, and prompting strategy is likely to be specific to the particular combination at hand.” —Rick Battle & Teja Gollapudi, VMware

To do so, they’ve enlisted the help of prompt engineers professionally.

However, new research suggests that prompt engineering is best done by the model itself, and not by a human engineer. This has cast doubt on prompt engineering’s future—and increased suspicions that a fair portion of prompt engineering jobs may be a passing fad, at least as the field is currently imagined.

Autotuned prompts are successful and strange

Rick Battle and Teja Gollapudi at California-based cloud computing company VMware were perplexed by how finicky and unpredictable LLM performance was in response to weird prompting techniques. For example, people have found that asking models to explain its reasoning step by step—a technique called chain-of-thought—improved their performance on a range of math and logic questions. Even weirder, Battle found that giving a model positive prompts, such as “this will be fun” or “you are as smart as chatGPT,” sometimes improved performance.

Battle and Gollapudi decided to systematically test how different prompt engineering strategies impact an LLM’s ability to solve grade school math questions. They tested three different open source language models with 60 different prompt combinations each. What they found was a surprising lack of consistency. Even chain-of-thought prompting sometimes helped and other times hurt performance. “The only real trend may be no trend,” they write. “What’s best for any given model, dataset, and prompting strategy is likely to be specific to the particular combination at hand.”

According to one research team, no human should manually optimize prompts ever again.

There is an alternative to the trial-and-error style prompt engineering that yielded such inconsistent results: Ask the language model to devise its own optimal prompt. Recently, new tools have been developed to automate this process. Given a few examples and a quantitative success metric, these tools will iteratively find the optimal phrase to feed into the LLM. Battle and his collaborators found that in almost every case, this automatically generated prompt did better than the best prompt found through trial-and-error. And, the process was much faster, a couple of hours rather than several days of searching.

The optimal prompts the algorithm spit out were so bizarre, no human is likely to have ever come up with them. “I literally could not believe some of the stuff that it generated,” Battle says. In one instance, the prompt was just an extended Star Trek reference: “Command, we need you to plot a course through this turbulence and locate the source of the anomaly. Use all available data and your expertise to guide us through this challenging situation.” Apparently, thinking it was Captain Kirk helped this particular LLM do better on grade school math questions.

Battle says that optimizing the prompts algorithmically fundamentally makes sense given what language models really are—models. “A lot of people anthropomorphize these things because they ‘speak English.’ No, they don’t,” Battle says. “It doesn’t speak English. It does a lot of math.”

In fact, in light of his team’s results, Battle says no human should manually optimize prompts ever again.

“You’re just sitting there trying to figure out what special magic combination of words will give you the best possible performance for your task,” Battle says, “But that’s where hopefully this research will come in and say ‘don’t bother.’ Just develop a scoring metric so that the system itself can tell whether one prompt is better than another, and then just let the model optimize itself.”

Autotuned prompts make pictures prettier, too

Image generation algorithms can benefit from automatically generated prompts as well. Recently, a team at Intel labs, led by Vasudev Lal, set out on a similar quest to optimize prompts for the image generation model Stable Diffusion. “It seems more like a bug of LLMs and diffusion models, not a feature, that you have to do this expert prompt engineering,” Lal says. “So, we wanted to see if we can automate this kind of prompt engineering.”

“Now we have this full machinery, the full loop that’s completed with this reinforcement learning. … This is why we are able to outperform human prompt engineering.” —Vasudev Lal, Intel Labs

Lal’s team created a tool called NeuroPrompts that takes a simple input prompt, such as “boy on a horse,” and automatically enhances it to produce a better picture. To do this, they started with a range of prompts generated by human prompt engineering experts. They then trained a language model to transform simple prompts into these expert-level prompts. On top of that, they used reinforcement learning to optimize these prompts to create more aesthetically pleasing images, as rated by yet another machine learning model, PickScore, a recently developed image evaluation tool.

Here too, the automatically generated prompts did better than the expert-human prompts they used as a starting point, at least according to the PickScore metric. Lal found this unsurprising. “Humans will only do it with trial and error,” Lal says. “But now we have this full machinery, the full loop that’s completed with this reinforcement learning. … This is why we are able to outperform human prompt engineering.”

Since aesthetic quality is infamously subjective, Lal and his team wanted to give the user some control over how their prompt was optimized. In their tool, the user can specify the original prompt (say, “boy on a horse”) as well as an artist to emulate, a style, a format, and other modifiers.

Lal believes that as generative AI models evolve, be it image generators or large language models, the weird quirks of prompt dependence should go away. “I think it’s important that these kinds of optimizations are investigated and then ultimately, they’re really incorporated into the base model itself so that you don’t really need a complicated prompt engineering step.”

Prompt engineering will live on, by some name

Even if autotuning prompts becomes the industry norm, prompt engineering jobs in some form are not going away, says Tim Cramer, senior vice president of software engineering at Red Hat. Adapting generative AI for industry needs is a complicated, multi-stage endeavor that will continue requiring humans in the loop for the foreseeable future.

“Maybe we’re calling them prompt engineers today. But I think the nature of that interaction will just keep on changing as AI models also keep changing.” —Vasudev Lal, Intel Labs

“I think there are going to be prompt engineers for quite some time, and data scientists,” Cramer says. “It’s not just asking questions of the LLM and making sure that the answer looks good. But there’s a raft of things that prompt engineers really need to be able to do.”

“It’s very easy to make a prototype,” Henley says. “It’s very hard to production-ize it.” Prompt engineering seems like a big piece of the puzzle when you’re building a prototype, Henley says, but many other considerations come into play when you’re making a commercial grade product.

Challenges of making a commercial product include ensuring reliability, e.g. failing gracefully when the model goes offline; adapting the model’s output to the appropriate format, since many use cases require outputs other than text; testing to make sure the AI-assistant won’t do something harmful in even a small number of cases; and ensuring safety, privacy, and compliance. Testing and compliance are particularly difficult, Henley says, as traditional software development testing strategies are maladapted for non-deterministic LLMs.

To fulfill these myriad tasks, many large companies are heralding a new job title: Large Language Model Operations, or LLMOps, which includes prompt engineering in its lifecycle but also entails all the other tasks needed to deploy the product. Henley says LLMOps’ predecessors, machine learning operations engineers (MLOps), are best positioned to take on these jobs.

Whether the job titles will be “prompt engineer,” “LLMOps engineer,” or something new entirely, the nature of the job will continue evolving quickly. “Maybe we’re calling them prompt engineers today,” Lal says, “But I think the nature of that interaction will just keep on changing as AI models also keep changing.”

“I don’t know if we’re going to combine it with another sort of job category or job role,” Cramer says, “But I don’t think that these things are going to be going away anytime soon. And the landscape is just too crazy right now. Everything’s changing so much. We’re not going to figure it all out in a few months.”

Henley says that, to some extent in this early phase of the field, the only overriding rule seems to be the absence of rules. “It’s kind of the wild wild west for this right now.” he says.