The Vatican is to host its first hackathon this week, harnessing the technological skills and creativity of students from more than 50 universities around the world to tackle issues identified as priorities by Pope Francis.
About 120 students and 35 mentors will gather in Rome over three days to focus on social inclusion, migrants and refugees, and interfaith dialogue.
“The aim is to bring people with backgrounds in technology, business, civil society and the humanities together to bring new perspectives to key global issues,” said Father Eric Salobir, a Catholic priest and president of the research and innovation network Optic.
The VHacks event is being organised in partnership with some of the world’s biggest tech companies, including Google and Microsoft.
Participating students come from a range of backgrounds. “There is a minority of Catholics. We have a big number of Muslims taking part and also Jews and people of no faith. There is a gender balance, and all five continents are represented,” said Jakub Florkiewicz, a technology consultant and organiser of VHacks.
The pope has spoken of the potential of technology and science to increase knowledge and understanding, but has also urged innovation to be coupled with equality and social inclusion.
He has warned young people of the limits of tech-based interactions, saying social media are no substitute for human connection, and he has highlighted the risks as well as benefits of artificial intelligence.
This year he told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland: “Artificial intelligence, robotics and other technological innovations must be so employed that they contribute to the service of humanity and to the protection of our common home, rather than to the contrary. It is vital to safeguard the dignity of the human person.”
Salobir said: “Because [the pope] points to dangers doesn’t mean he’s anti-technology. It’s the way it’s utilised. He is really concerned about a certain type of technology related to a certain type of capitalism.”
He said the hackathon was “a sign of the transformation of the [Catholic] church led by Pope Francis. It’s a way to bring fresh air, youth and technology inside the Vatican, and to get these students to concentrate their energies on real problems.”
The church had a high level of engagement with big global technology companies, “but this is not done in front of the microphones. It’s discreet,” he said.
The students will be divided into teams tackling different themes. The event, which begins on Thursday, will conclude with an award for the most innovative contribution combining technology and human values.