Almost Timely News: Protecting Your AI Prompts (2023-04-16) :: View in Browser

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Almost Timely News: Protecting Your AI Prompts

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What’s On My Mind: Protecting Your AI Prompts

During a meeting this past week, I demonstrated some of the prompt engineering techniques I use to get good results out of generative AI services like ChatGPT and the GPT family of models. I’ve been doing prompt engineering for years now, starting with the GPT-2 model that was released in 2020; lots of practice means you eventually get decent at it. The folks I was showing were impressed by what the prompts did, especially since their own prompts were generating lackluster results.

At the end of the meeting, they asked a very important question. “Hey, if you don’t mind, could you send me that prompt?”

Now, in this particular context, this person is a trusted friend and associate, so of course I said yes. But that’s an important question because it underscores the way people think about large language model prompts – and how they don’t think about them.

Because they look like natural language – like this newsletter, like the interoffice memo sent around last week asking people to please not microwave fish in the common room, like the social media posts we read every day – we assume they are just language, just words. But they’re not just words.

Imagine, at the end of a meeting with a developer, I asked the developer, “Hey, could you send me the source code to the product you’re building?” What would that developer’s response be? What SHOULD that developer’s response be? Can you imagine asking someone to just send along their proprietary code, secret sauce recipe, or hard-earned techniques? (especially for free) The response should usually be a polite but firm no, and perhaps, depending on the circumstances, an offer to allow the person to purchase that valuable intellectual property.

What is programming? What is code? Is it arcane constructs like R, Python, C, etc. that look like this?

df <- read_csv(“data/analytics.12.13.2023.csv”) |>
clean_names() |>
distinct() |>
select(date,source,medium,campaign,sessions,conversions)

That’s certainly computer code. What does it do? At the most abstract level, it gives a computer instructions to follow to achieve a repeatable, reliable result.

What about this?

You are a marketing analyst. You know SQL, R, set theory, tidyverse libraries and methods. You know marketing analytics, Google Analytics 4, BigQuery, attribution modeling.

Your first task is to write code to import a CSV file using today’s date in the name, prepare the variable names to be compliant with best practice naming standards, ensure the rows of data are unique, and then subset the data into date, the source, medium, and campaign dimensions for sessions and conversions.

Is this just words? Is it just language? No. This is functionally a computer program. This is software.

Andrej Karpathy had a great quote on Twitter back in January: “The hottest programming language in 2023 is English.” This is a completely true statement thanks to large language models like the GPT family. Using plain language, we give computers instructions to generate reliable, repeatable results.

Would you give away your source code, as a company? Would you give away the detailed Excel macros you’ve written? Does your employer even permit you to do so, to share anything made as a work product? Chances are, the answer is no – and in many cases, whether or not there are explicit rules against sharing trade secrets, you shouldn’t share them.

What we need to realize and recognize is that our prompts are code. Our prompts are software. Our prompts are intellectual property that’s valuable. It’s not a press release or a blog post, it’s computer code – just code that non-formally trained programmers can write.

So, how do we decide what we should and should not share? Here’s the easy test to apply to any prompt: will this prompt in question save time, save money, or make money, within the context of our business? For example, the other day, I wrote a prompt that ingests two sets of Google Analytics data for traffic and conversions, then compares the two and writes a marketing strategy to help improve our digital marketing. This prompt has been incorporated into R code that talks to OpenAI’s GPT-3.5-Turbo API so that it can run over and over again in an automated way against a roster of clients. The net result will be great marketing analysis first drafts that I can incorporate into the guidance we give to Trust Insights clients.

Am I about to share that prompt? Absolutely not. That is going to be part of the secret sauce of what we do; the prompt itself is almost two pages long because of the special conditions that control it and make it do exactly what we want. It’s a prompt that will save our clients money and make my company money, so it triggers two conditions in the time and money rule.

I wrote a prompt the other day for a friend to take a first crack at some wedding vows. It was detailed and thorough, and the results it generated literally brought my friend to tears. Would I share that prompt? Yes. It’s not material to what I do, to what Trust Insights does, and it’s not going to save me any time or money. I have no intention of getting into the wedding planning business either, so it’s not going to make me any money, and thus that’s a prompt I would feel very comfortable sharing. It clears all three conditions of the time and money rule.

Here’s a gray zone example. I was talking to a friend who works in finance, and she was saying her company creates investment strategies for high net worth individuals. I drafted a prompt that creates such an investment strategy, and then a prompt refinement process that drills down into specifics of the process to create a custom investment guide for these kinds of folks using some investment data. Would I share that prompt? Well, it doesn’t save me any time or money. Is it going to make me money? Not directly, because Trust Insights isn’t a financial services company. But would we ever work with a financial services institution? Sure. We have a regional bank as a client right now. Would they be interested in such a process? Probably. So even though it’s not a direct moneymaker, I could see it being valuable enough that someone else would be willing to pay money for it, so sharing that prompt would probably fall on the no side.

This isn’t a huge stretch for many of us. We give away small stuff all the time. We give away blog posts or newsletter issues like what you’re enjoying right now. But we charge for books, and people expect us to charge for books. We charge for speeches from the stage. We charge for consulting and private counsel that’s uniquely fitted to a customer’s needs.

Here’s one last consideration to take into account: your employment agreement. Check it over carefully to see what conditions you agreed to when you accepted an offer of employment, particularly around intellectual property. Some companies say (reasonably so) that anything you create at work is owned by them – which would mean prompts you wrote at work are no longer yours to give away or share, any more than computer code you wrote at work or a slide deck you made at work is yours to give away or share. Some companies are so restrictive that they work clauses into their employment agreements that say anything you create – whether or not at work – while you are employed by them is theirs, even if you do it on your own time. And because you signed the employee agreement as a condition of employment, you are bound by it.

For job seekers, inspect employment agreements carefully and request changes in it that are fair and equitable. It is more than reasonable to say that anything created by you at work, by the request of your employer or as a part of the duties you are paid for in your job description, is owned by your employer. But talk to an attorney (yes, a human one, not ChatGPT) about what protections you should ask for to keep things like prompts you write outside of work as your own intellectual property, especially if they save you time, save you money, or make you money.

The key takeaway here is that prompts aren’t just casual pieces of text to fling around. Treat them with care, consideration, and caution – especially if they save time, save money, or make money. If you’re an employer, you need to have clear policies in place if you don’t already about how people should treat intellectual property – because the average person isn’t going to think of a prompt as code, but it is 100% code that you own. You are, of course, welcome to give away whatever you want, it’s your life and your business. But I would advise caution before simply flinging them into the wind, just the same way I would advise caution before open-sourcing a piece of software your business wrote. You might give away something valuable enough that others would pay you money for it.

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ICYMI: In Case You Missed it

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Events I’ll Be At

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Events with links have purchased sponsorships in this newsletter and as a result, I receive direct financial compensation for promoting them.

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My company, Trust Insights, maintains business partnerships with companies including, but not limited to, IBM, Cisco Systems, Amazon, Talkwalker, MarketingProfs, MarketMuse, Agorapulse, Hubspot, Informa, Demandbase, The Marketing AI Institute, and others. While links shared from partners are not explicit endorsements, nor do they directly financially benefit Trust Insights, a commercial relationship exists for which Trust Insights may receive indirect financial benefit, and thus I may receive indirect financial benefit from them as well.

Thank You

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See you next week,

Christopher S. Penn


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