Imagine a circle. Close your eyes and really focus on that thing. What is it like? It's round, flat, something separates it from the rest of its surroundings. Nothing terribly special nor terribly interesting really. Now imagine a second one next to it. They're not touching, but they're nearby. They can be the same or different, but it might help you to think of them being the same type of circle.
Now imagine a line joining the two circles so they can communicate with each other. The circle on the left can talk to the circle on the right, and vice versa. Here we establish one very important rule: for every conversation that's had between those circles, the line gets bigger by some arbitrary amount and when it's not in use, it slowly shrinks.
Now that we have the basics, let's throw in some more circles. Imagine a third or fourth, or if you're feeling adventurous a fifth and sixth. Each one of those circles has a line connecting to each of the others. So with three circles you have three lines, and with four circles you have six lines, five you have ten lines, etc. Each line is subject to the same rule as before; every time a circle interacts with another circle, the line between them grows.
Now turn those circles into cities, and those lines into roads. If two cities interact a lot, then there are going to be a lot of roads that go between them; I'm from Wisconsin, so a good example for me is Milwaukee and Madison or Milwaukee and Chicago where those cities have a lot of traffic between them, so the roads are large are under constant maintenance.
Now imgine that those circles are neurons and the lines are dendrites. When electric signals are passed between two neurons, the connection between them grows stronger; the dendrite actually becomes thicker so it can pass more current through it.
Now imagine that those circles are computer systems like a desktop, laptop, phone, or tablet. The lines then are wired or wireless signals that pass between them where the higher traffic wires and signals are given more bandwidth, and the smaller ones become obsolete with time and just can't compete with the high data rates of the new connections.
Now imagine that the circles are people and the lines are their intereactions like conversations or handshakes. Each positive interaction makes the line thicker, and each negative interaction makes the line thinner in addition to it slowly thinning over time.
So what does that all mean? That everything is connected? Great, haven't heard that one before. No, I'm suggesting that perhaps we've created consiousness (not necessarily life) on many different occasions. As machine learning becomes a more prevailent buzzword, have we created other systems that "learn" but are less recognizable due to their macroscopic scales? Is the intercontinental highway system intelligent? Can it learn? Poposturous you say, we would never need roads without cities; but then again we don't need dendrites without neurons. We wouldn't need roads without people around, and we also wouldn't need dendrites without electric signals in our brains.
Now I'm not saying that we should really be worrying about hurting the highway's feelings every time a chunck slips into the median, it's likely not even self aware because its complexity pales in comparison to the complexity of an animal's brain. I would say that consiousness has something akin to a critical density where once the number of circles, or nodes, reaches a certain amount, conciousness can be achieved.
Nevertheless, because of the basic rules that we imagined and how easy it is to create such a system, I would venture to guess that, if consiousness arises from this, then there is a lot more intelligence in our universe than we're expecting.
And because of the basic rules that we've instituted, it is fairly easy mathematically to show how many possible combinations that could arise, but that number is so mind bogglingly huge that it's generally safe to say it's infinite. Unfortunately, infinity is not nice to work with compared to real numbers, so quantifying the numbers could be useful, but it isn't necessary.
Anyway, if you're bored and want to do something entertaining, grab a coin and a di, draw six circles, roll the di 10 times making a connection between every other roll, then apply a rule of your choice. I went with Roll di; if chosen node has odd # of connections, flip coin once per connection; if heads, make new parallel connection; if tails, no new connection; if chosen node has even connections, roll again and make a connection to that new node.
It sounds somewhat complicated, but I'd say it's far simpler than some of the board games I've played before.