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What is a “Few-Shot” Prompt and Why Would You Use One?

Understanding “Few-Shot” Prompting

Few-shot prompting is a concept rooted in the field of machine learning, particularly in the subfield of natural language processing (NLP). It involves providing an AI system with a small number of examples, or ‘shots’, to infer and understand the task at hand. In a few-shot learning scenario, the AI is expected to make generalizations from a limited set of examples and accurately perform a similar task.

This technique was popularized in the context of OpenAI’s GPT-3 and subsequent models, which demonstrated that they could understand and generate accurate responses based on just a handful of provided examples.

Few-Shot Prompts vs. Regular Prompts

Regular prompting, or single-shot prompting, typically provides a single input command, question, or statement that instructs the AI on what task to perform. For instance, the user might ask a language model, “Translate the following English text into Spanish: ‘Hello, how are you?'”.

Few-shot prompts, in contrast, involve presenting the AI model with several examples of the task to give it a broader context. This allows the AI to infer the underlying pattern or relationship among the examples. For instance, you might present several paired English and Spanish sentences, and then ask the AI to translate a new English sentence into Spanish. By providing this context, you’re helping the AI model understand the task better.

When to Use Few-Shot Prompting

Few-shot prompting can be especially beneficial in scenarios where the desired output is complex, the task is not straightforward, or the model has not been specifically trained for the task at hand. By providing a handful of examples, the AI model can generalize the task, leading to potentially more accurate and nuanced responses.

However, it’s worth noting that the use of few-shot prompts should be based on the complexity of the task and the model’s capability. Some models might be able to understand the task with just one prompt, while others may need a few examples.

Crafting Effective Few-Shot Prompts

The art of writing effective few-shot prompts involves a balance of clarity, context, and precision. Here are some key considerations:

  1. Clarity: The prompts should be clear and unambiguous. The AI model should easily understand the task it is expected to perform based on the examples provided.
  2. Context: Providing a sufficient context is crucial. Too little context and the AI may not be able to accurately infer the task. However, excessive context can introduce irrelevant information, potentially confusing the model.
  3. Task Structure: Few-shot prompts often follow a pattern where a number of examples (input-output pairs) are followed by a new input for which the model should generate an output. This structure should be maintained for the best results.
  4. Brevity: While providing enough information is essential, the prompts should also be concise. A succinct, well-structured prompt is more likely to lead to accurate responses.
  5. Relevance: The examples provided in the prompts should be relevant and representative of the task at hand. Providing non-representative examples might lead the model to make incorrect generalizations.

Few-shot prompting represents a powerful approach to AI training, particularly for complex tasks that a model might not have been explicitly trained on. As with any AI approach, it requires careful crafting and thoughtful application. But when used effectively, few-shot prompts can help AI systems better understand and respond to a wide variety of tasks.

Few-Shot Prompt Examples

Here are a few examples that demonstrate how a few-shot prompt is structured.  Keep in mind that the examples below do not represent good “use cases” for a few-shot prompt.   Few-shot prompts are better suited for situations where you need to tune the output and traditional methods are not yielding the results you need.


Example 1: "Translate the following English text to French: 'Hello, how are you?' => 'Bonjour, comment ça va?'"

Example 2: "Translate the following English text to French: 'Thank you very much.' => 'Merci beaucoup.'"

Now, translate this English text to French: "Good night and sweet dreams."

Joke Creation

Example 1: "Create a joke about a chicken. => 'Why did the chicken join a band? Because it had the drumsticks!'"

Example 2: "Create a joke about a tomato. => 'Why did the tomato turn red? Because it saw the salad dressing!'"

Now, create a joke about a pencil.

Sentiment Analysis

Example 1: "Classify the sentiment of this sentence: 'I love this beautiful sunny weather.' => 'Positive'"

Example 2: "Classify the sentiment of this sentence: 'I am frustrated with this slow computer.' => 'Negative'"

Now, classify the sentiment of this sentence: "This is the best day of my life!"

Riddle Solving

Example 1: "Solve this riddle: 'What has keys but can't open locks?' => 'A piano'"

Example 2: "Solve this riddle: 'What has to be broken before you can use it?' => 'An egg'"

Now, solve this riddle: "I speak without a mouth and hear without ears. What am I?"